In his first NFL start, Alexander Johnson played like a linebacker out to make up for lost time.

Johnson, 27, earned the game ball from Broncos coach Vic Fangio after a dominating performance in the win over the Chargers last Sunday. He racked up eight tackles (five solo), defended two passes and intercepted Philip Rivers in the end zone to key a bounce-back performance by the Broncos’ defense. 

The showing earned Johnson an extended opportunity at inside linebacker, even as starter Josey Jewell returns from a hamstring injury Sunday against Tennessee. In Johnson, the Broncos see a raw, talented player who has room to grow.

“He’s a guy that keeps progressing, shows good instincts and out of the box he had some really nice plays for us (against Los Angeles),” defensive coordinator Ed Donatell said. “We still know there’s some shoring up to do in his play, but the arrow is going up.”

Last Sunday was a redemptive, coming-out performance for Johnson, a former Tennessee star who spent more than three years out of football because of an aggravated rape allegation. The 27-year-old was indicted in February 2015 and he (along with a Tennessee teammate) were acquitted in July 2018. The Broncos signed him a few weeks later.

General manager John Elway released a statement of confidence in Johnson’s character upon that signing. For his part, Johnson says he remained strong in his faith throughout the three-and-a-half-year trial.

“I learned a lot — I learned good and bad stuff (about myself),” Johnson said. “I feel like God put me through that for a reason.”

Because of the indictment, Johnson was suspended for the rest of his senior season at Tennessee and had his invitation to the 2015 NFL Combine rescinded. Out of football completely, Johnson turned to mixed martial arts, training with a local UFC fighter in Knoxville and eventually getting on a card for a bout. To make ends meet, he worked as a personal trainer and as a radiological control technician.

He never did end up fighting, having to withdraw from that December 2017 card due to injury. Even so, Johnson said he fell in love with the sport. And in addition to using it to stay in shape, he plans on returning to MMA after his football career is over.

“Whenever I’m done with football, you know you see guys who are 45 years old and fighting still?” Johnson said, smiling behind gold-rimmed glasses. “That’s one of my goals, is to be able to get me some (professional) matches when I’m done with football.”

Even though Johnson found his way back to football, it took a while for him to consistently see the field again. Johnson appeared in one game last year, against Houston, before being waived in late November. A few days later he was signed to Denver’s practice squad for the final month of the season, and Fangio noted Johnson needed to “earn his stripes” on special teams early in 2019.

Johnson embraced the challenge, noting that “life, in and out of football, is a grind.”

“The biggest thing I learned here last year was the need to stay patient even more,” Johnson said. “Obviously it was tough for me being able to be back in football and not really getting to play. But it’s still a big blessing I was able to make it to the NFL, and I’m still here. So I kept grinding and I kept believing.”

Johnson, a three-time All-SEC selection who finished his Volunteer career second all-time in total tackles (425), said he remains focused on the “little details” such as punching, releasing, block-shedding offensive linemen and dropping into coverage.

And while Johnson progresses up the NFL learning curve, there’s no questioning his athleticism has had an immediate impact on a defense in need of fresh playmakers.

“He can jump, he’s fast and he can tackle,” fellow linebacker Von Miller pointed out. “Playing against backs like (the Titans’) Derrick Henry, you need a couple guys like that.”

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