Tide unsung hero ready for his final Iron Bowl

Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson has shined as a team leader. (AP photo by Jeff Roberson)

This is one of my stories for today’s print editions:

TUSCALOOSA, Alabama — Four years ago, Nico Johnson sat in the stands at Alabama’s 36-0 Iron Bowl win, eager to put on a crimson jersey.

A five-star prospect out of Andalusia High, he took his official visit to Alabama that weekend, even though he already had committed to the Crimson Tide almost three months earlier.

“I was getting over the flu, and I was debating if I was going to come or not, but I was here,” Johnson said. “It was my first Iron Bowl, as a matter of fact. It was exciting. I was ready to play that day. It was fun. I was ready to come in and work.”

And when he did arrive on campus for his freshman season, that’s what he did — go to work. He’s done that for four seasons, playing regularly every year and serving as a key element of two national championship teams and one that still is in the hunt for a title.

Today will mark his final home game, and Alabama’s coach, Nick Saban, said the Crimson Tide will miss him next season.

“I appreciate the commitment on his part to be all he can be to help the team,” Saban said. “He’s never ever showed a negative attitude or complained in any way, shape or form about his circumstance. He’s always been the consummate team guy. We appreciate it, and I think a lot of the players appreciate it.”

When Johnson arrived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama had signed four guys that year who Rivals.com had rated as a five-star prospect, including him. Two were first-round draft picks this past spring: defensive back Dre Kirkpatrick and running back Trent Richardson. The third is offensive tackle D.J. Fluker, who is labeled a probable first-round pick, even after getting off to a slow start this season.

Johnson likely won’t join his teammates as a first-round pick, although ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said he could go as high as the second or third round.

Even though Johnson has played regularly since his freshman season, he hasn’t started regularly. He plays inside linebacker, and sometimes Alabama will start the game with five or six defensive backs and play that way much of the game. In those cases, Johnson will spend plenty of time on the bench.

But when Alabama plays a power team, such as LSU, and the Tide uses its “regular” defense, he will get plenty of time on the field. He made 12 tackles against the Bengal Tigers, and his 50 stops for the year are a career high and tied for second on the team.

He said it’s fine with him that his playing time varies from game to game.

“Coach (Saban) puts players in the best spot he thinks they can make plays,” Johnson said. “That’s it. If he thinks you can make better plays in the regular or nickel, that’s what he’s going to do. The players have much respect for the way he does the system. Whatever he gives us, we take the bull by the horns and do our best.”

Johnson has started only four games, but Saban said there’s no doubt he is one of the leaders of the defense.

“He’s doing everything he can do to affect other people in a positive way,” he said. “We appreciate the leadership.”

Now Johnson’s career is close to ending. Today will mark his final home game.

“It has flown by,” he said. “I feel like I just got recruited. It has flown by. The fans have been good. Coach (Saban) has been good. Alabama’s been good to me. It’s been a good ride. I’m trying to finish it out the right way.”

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