ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As Alexander Johnson took the field against the Titans in Week 6 for his second career start, a former Broncos linebacker took notice.
The former Bronco watched as Johnson moved sideline to sideline during the game, racking up a team-high nine tackles and recording 1.5 sacks in a shutout win.
And Al Wilson liked what he saw.
“When you watch linebackers, you always wonder if a guy is going to show up on film,” Wilson told DenverBroncos.com. “And obviously this is a guy that just shows up on film. He just seems to be around the ball, he just seems to make plays. Some of those things you just can’t coach. It’s just a natural God-given ability that he has, and he has that natural knack for the ball and instincts that you need to be a good middle linebacker. I believe that he can be an All-Pro, Pro Bowl middle linebacker if he just continues to study the game, stay focused and committed to it. There’s no question he can be one of the best middle linebackers in the business.”
Wilson certainly knows the middle linebacker position. During his eight-year career with the Broncos, Wilson was selected to five Pro Bowls and earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2005. The 1999 first-round pick missed just three games during his eight seasons in Denver and finished his career with 714 tackles, 21.5 sacks, 62 tackles for loss, five interceptions and eight forced fumbles.
Johnson and Wilson share more than just their Broncos connection. In 1998, Wilson capped off his career with the Tennessee Volunteers with a national championship and first-team All-American honors. The former team captain was also a member of back-to-back SEC Championship teams.
More than a decade later, Johnson was named a Freshman All-American in 2011 and earned First-Team All-SEC honors in 2013. During his four years with the Vols, he tallied the most total tackles among SEC players since at least 2005.
Wilson, who is in the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, could tell as early as 2011 that Johnson had a chance to be an impact player.
“You could tell from his freshman year that he was going to be an outstanding football player, simply because he came in and won a starting job as a freshman,” Wilson said. “Playing middle linebacker in the SEC as a true freshman is not the easiest thing to do, so he earned my respect early on as a player and as a linebacker.”
Wilson said Johnson is “arguably the best middle linebacker” to play at Tennessee, which is high praise coming from Wilson. He said Johnson’s hands, knack for the football and his 6-foot-2, 255-pound frame are attributes “you just can’t coach.”
“If he continues to hone his skills and stay focused on what it takes to become a better middle linebacker and understands the intricate parts of the game, there’s no question he’ll be a Pro Bowl player in a year or two,” Wilson said.
That kind of support means a great deal to Johnson, who said he modeled his game after the older linebacker.
“Growing up, as a kid, I didn’t know much about Tennessee football,” Johnson said. “When I started getting recruited by them, that’s when I really started learning about the history behind it. Immediately, it clicked. … I was like, ‘Man, that’s who I want to be like.’ It was [Wilson] and Eric Berry who were the two guys that were dudes at Tennessee that I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to model my game after them.’ That was pretty cool to get my first chance to meet [Wilson] when I was at school, and we clicked from there. He’s been a great mentor.”
The two men talk quite a bit. They chatted after the win over the Titans, and Wilson sent Johnson a text ahead of the Broncos’ game vs. the Chiefs. Johnson said Wilson has told him if he stays humble and keeps playing hard, things will fall into the place for the second-year linebacker.
Wilson offers advice because he’s lived a Pro Bowl career — and Johnson has listened. Johnson said he tries to mimic Wilson’s passion for the game.
“Anybody that meets him, you’re going to like him,” Johnson said. “Just his personality. He’s a great guy, he’s caring and he’s hardworking on the field. He was passionate about the game. That’s one of the things I try to be. Him being passionate about the game, it just brings out more in you and it shows in the way he played. He played with a lot of intensity, having fun out there celebrating. I try to model that.”
He’s also grateful that he’s had the chance to connect with one of the best players in both Tennessee and Denver Broncos history.
“That’s something real cool to follow in somebody’s footsteps that you look up to,” Johnson said. “Some guys look up to people on other teams and they never had the chance to go to their school or play on the same team as them. I got to go to the same school and now I’m playing at the same pro team.”
And for as much as the connection means to Johnson, it may mean even more to Wilson to hear that Johnson considers him a mentor.
“It’s a humbling feeling,” Wilson said. “It’s a very humbling feeling. It lets me know I’m getting older, that’s for sure. It’s one of those things that it gives you an appreciation for how you played the game. I tried to go out and just compete at a high level and give my teammates everything I could week in and week out. For him to try to model his game after mine, that means a lot to me. That means a lot to me.
“But I think he can be even better than I was. That’s what I’m excited about: to see how far his career goes.”