ENGLEWOOD | Former University of Tennessee star linebacker A.J. Johnson is getting a shot in the NFL with the Denver Broncos less than a month after he was acquitted along with a college teammate of aggravated rape charges.
After his first practice as a pro Monday, Johnson said, “It’s a blessing to be a part of a team, I’m excited to get out here, start working out and start working my tail off.”
He said he never doubted he’d see this day.
“No, never a time. I had faith. I trusted in God,” he said. “I kept working and being determined and kept pushing. I knew it was going to come.”
Johnson said the Broncos reached out to him Saturday.
Coach Vance Joseph said he wasn’t sure what to expect from Johnson following such a long layoff from football.
“Well, we’ll see. It’s been three years since he’s actually played football. At that time, three years ago, he was a serious prospect,” Joseph said. “He’s got great size, he can run, he’s a very, very intelligent player. So, we’ll see.”
Johnson and Michael Williams were acquitted of all counts July 27. They were indicted in February 2015 after a woman said both men raped her during a party at Johnson’s apartment in the early morning hours of Nov. 16, 2014. Johnson and Williams were suspended from the team less than 48 hours after the party and never played for Tennessee again.
While Williams was a part-time starter in the secondary, Johnson was a four-year starter and a pro prospect whose invitation to the 2015 NFL combine was rescinded after charges were filed.
“A.J. hasn’t had the opportunity to play football for the last three years while resolving a serious legal matter,” general manager John Elway said in a statement Monday. “We’ve had several conversations with him since he’s been cleared and have become very familiar with his background and character. Our organization is confident A.J. is ready to move forward and resume his playing career.”
Joseph said the Broncos did their due diligence before signing Johnson.
“We talked to all of his coaches. My cousin actually coached him at Tennessee. Zach (Azzanni, Denver’s new wide receivers coach) had him at Tennessee. Everyone spoke highly about the guy, so we’ll see. Again, he wants to play football, he’s been training for two years to play football. He’s been here for four hours, so we’ll see how he fits in.”
To make room for Johnson, the Broncos released linebacker Stansly Maponga.
They also signed safety Shamarko Thomas after losing safety Jamal Carter (torn hamstring) for the season Saturday night in their preseason opener. Joseph said Carter needs surgery and will go on IR.
Thomas was released by the Colts on Saturday, less than 48 hours after he was ejected from a preseason game against Seattle for an illegal helmet hit.
Thomas said Colts coach Frank Reich told him his release wasn’t over that hit, however.
“It’s all in God’s plan. The ejection, I leaned with my helmet, that’s what they say. I’m just happy to be here and be a Bronco,” Thomas said.
Now a 26-year-old rookie, Johnson was a three-time All-SEC selection at Tennessee from 2011-14. He was a four-year starter in Knoxville whose 425 tackles ran second among any Volunteer since the school started keeping track of the statistic in 1970.
In 46 career games at Tennessee, he had 30½ tackles for loss, three sacks, an interception, 11 pass breakups, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. He posted double digits in tackles 23 times.
Prosecutors painted Johnson and Williams as entitled athletes who weren’t used to being told no. Defense attorneys argued that the woman had sex with both men at the same time and then lied, claiming she had been raped.
After a jury of seven women and five men found Johnson and Williams not guilty, Johnson said, “I just knew God was going to take care of it.”
The Broncos listed the 6-foot-2 Johnson at 243 pounds, but he said at his trial last month that he weighs 255 as he sought to revive his dream of playing in the NFL.
Johnson said he wasn’t bitter over his long-delayed debut.
“No, I’m not a bitter guy. I wake up happy every day. I’m blessed, I’m glad to be out here,” he said. “I haven’t had this many cameras in my face in a long time. But no, I have no bitterness about me.”