Tag Archives: Nico Johnson

Thoughts and Analysis: Alabama in the NFL Draft

The picture Barrett Jones tweeted of himself after being drafted by the St. Louis Rams. (Photo from @BarrettAJones)

The picture Barrett Jones tweeted of himself after being drafted by the St. Louis Rams. (Photo from @BarrettAJones)

To add on to my analysis of Alabama in the First Round, I’m going to go through the Crimson Tide in the following rounds. But, before I do, be sure to check out all of the official Draft coverage here on the DailyBamaBlog.com, all of it on one page with no interruptions right here.

Here we go:

– The more feedback I receive via Twitter and more I see elsewhere, the more I think I may be the only one on the planet not surprised by Eddie Lacy and his fall into the Green Bay Packers organization at Pick No. 61. Lacy’s medical history is not very good (and even worse, it’s all in his legs) and in today’s NFL, where the runningback-by-committee approach is spreading like wildfire due to daily wear-and-tear, the thought of going from three backs to two is scary. That may have driven a team or two away from Lacy.

That being said, Lacy’s value to the Packers will be great. The Packers will likely only need 10 or so carries a game out of Lacy, and he can surely give that. His stats after a few years may be lower than some of the three backs drafted ahead of him – Giovani Bernard (North Carolina), Le’Veon Bell (Michigan State) and Montee Ball (Wisconsin) – but his situation suits him greatly and he is immediately in contention for a Super Bowl title.

– Maybe the Chiefs have caught on to the whole dynasty thing going on in Tuscaloosa: their selection of Nico Johnson early in the fourth round makes for three Nick Saban era Alabama defensive players to be drafted by the Chiefs, joining defensive backs Javier Arenas and DeQuan Menzie. Their presence in Kansas City should work wonders for Johnson, as long as he can do what he needs to do to work on his weaknesses: first step on the run, quickness in getting back on playaction, etc.

– I have yet to have a negative thought on the Rams picking up Barrett Jones in the fourth round. Ever since the Rams took quarterback Sam Bradford with the first pick a few years ago, they have been trying to find him some pieces to make his job easier on offense. Surely some security up front would be welcomed by Bradford. Where Jones will play is a decision that has yet to be made, but I think we all know he can play anywhere if necessary.

– Maybe it’s just me, but I think the Seahawks nabbing Jesse Williams in the beginning of the 5th round was one of the biggest, if not the, steals of the draft. Williams’ 4.9 40-yard dash and impressive showing in agility drills paired with his ridiculous strength makes him a once-in-a-generation physical specimen. Admittedly, we have not seen as much of his playmaking abilities as we would like, since the nosetackle in Saban’s 3-4 scheme is more of a space-eater than a TFL guy, but we have seen him get those tackles for a loss through a double team. Bold prediction: he’s going to be a top 5 pick-up for the Seahawks in the Russell Wilson era, which makes the Seahawks look like soon-to-be contenders in the NFC.

– Nothing new here, just the San Fransisco adding nice pieces to its rotation it late rounds again, like it did with Quinton Dial. Dial will most likely never be a star in the league: no Pro-Bowls, no All-Decade teams, etc. But he will prove to be a nice breather guy: someone who can take a few snaps at defensive end and continue to apply pressure while the starters rest up. Those guys are almost as important as the starters: on those 11 or more play drives, a glaring weakness in a back-up can turn a momentum-swinging stop into a game-clinching touchdown.

– In the final round of the draft, the Detroit Lions selected another piece for Matthew Stafford to throw to, tight end Michael Williams. Williams told the Detroit media that he wants to bring balance to the tight end position in Detroit, both as a blocker and a dumpoff option. Williams showed the tools to do just that with the Tide and if he is given an opportunity to show that in Detroit, he will certainly earn playing time before long.

Round Four: Nico Johnson goes early, Barrett Jones to St. Louis

Nico Johnson is a now a Kansas City Chief. (AP photo)

Nico Johnson is a now a Kansas City Chief. (AP photo)

The national headline of the 2013 NFL Draft’s 4th Round will be the opening pick, as the Eagles traded up to get the first pick of the day and draft former USC quarterback Matt Barkley. The headline in Tuscaloosa, Ala., however, will skip that pick and go to the next one, where former Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson was taken No. 99 overall, 2nd in the 4th round, by the Kansas City Chiefs.

The USA Today had the following analysis of the Johnson pick.

If there’s any program that produces players virtually ready to step into an NFL lineup, it’s Nick Saban’s. Johnson is already experienced in the 3-4 defense — Alabama has helped popularize the scheme at the Division I level — and could very easily step into a starting job next to Chiefs ILB Derrick Johnson if he can beat out journeymen Zac Diles and Akeem Jordan.

The Chiefs are no stranger to drafting former Alabama players, drafting two defensive backs from the Tide in the last five years that still remain with the team: Javier Arenas and DeQuan Menzie.

The Chiefs have shown interest in Johnson throughout the process, starting with this interview while Johnson was preparing for the Senior Bowl.

***

With pick No. 113 (No. 16 in the 4th round), former Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones was picked up by the St. Louis Rams as a piece to help protect quarterback Sam Bradford.

USA Today put forth some analysis of this pickup, as well.

Jones is one of the most decorated linemen in college football history, earning three rings and multiple All-American accolades with the Tide. He’s played all five spots on the O-line — well — but left guard in St. Louis could be his ticket. Jones has played through a myriad of injuries and gutted out Alabama’s 2012 title march with a Lisfranc (foot) injury, which says a lot about his toughness.

Alabama 2013 Pro Day: Nico Johnson itching for next chance

Former Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson awaits his turn to go through drills for NFL scouts in Tuscaloosa on Alabama's Pro Day. (Copyright photo by Brett Hudson

Former Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson awaits his turn to go through drills for NFL scouts in Tuscaloosa on Alabama’s Pro Day. (Copyright photo by Brett Hudson

In his last showing in front of National Football League personnel, former Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson asked all that would respond for advice on what to do with his sports hernia that plagued him for the latter part of the 2012 season and the Senior Bowl, in which he recorded four tackles.

Johnson decided to have surgery and fix the issue, a decision that limited his performance in Alabama’s Pro Day on Wednesday. Johnson did not hold himself out of many drills, but he made quick work of degrading his own performance.

“It was my first time really running. I didn’t have much time to prepare for something like this,” Johnson said. “But our next Pro Day is April 2nd so I’m going to come back and do pretty much everything over. That sports hernia kind of held me back a little bit, and I felt it today.

“I can run better. As of that, I feel like I’ve got a whole lot to improve on.”

Johnson did not participate in bench press due to his surgery, but did put up a 9-feet-2.5-inch broad jump on Pro Day. Johnson also ran the shuttle run and the three-cone drill.

In the meantime, Johnson can only hope the film of his play for the Crimson Tide will back him up. But he has yet to fall on the game film.

“Now I just want to come back April 2nd and show I could improve, because I ran a better 40 (on Pro Day) than I did around this time last year as a junior going into senior year,” Johnson said. “Everything else: I think I did the drills well. But I’m a perfectionist, so I want everything to be good, so I’m going to come back and bust my butt.”

Click here to see Johnson, and other former Alabama players, run the 40-yard dash.

Alabama 2013 Pro Day: 40-Yard Dash, video

Former Alabama long snapper Carson Tinker running the 40-yard dash at Alabama's Pro Day on Wednesday. (Copyright photo by Brett Hudson)

Former Alabama long snapper Carson Tinker running the 40-yard dash at Alabama’s Pro Day on Wednesday. (Copyright photo by Brett Hudson)

All eyes turned to midfield for the 40-yard dash in Wednesday’s Pro Day hosted by Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide football team.

Below, you can see video of the following former Alabama football players running the 40-yard dash: tight end Kelly Johnson, tight end Michael Williams, defensive tackle Jesse Williams, linebacker Nico Johnson, safety Robert Lester and long snapper Carson Tinker.

Here is a partial list of the results: M. Williams 5.4, J. Williams 4.9, Nico Johnson, 5.0, Lester 4.65.

For more on the players seen in the above video, click here to read more on Nico Johnson’s disappointing Pro Day and click here to read more on Tinker and his fellow specialist, Jeremy Shelley, in Wednesday’s action.

Also, click here to read about Jesse Williams’ Pro Day (with video) and for another video post, click here.

Countdown to Spring Football: Linebackers Breakdown

C.J. Mosley, the Defensive MVP of the BCS National Championship Game win over Notre Dame, highlights a linebacking corps loaded with talent. (AP photo)

C.J. Mosley, the Defensive MVP of the BCS National Championship Game win over Notre Dame, highlights a linebacking corps loaded with talent. (AP photo)

Daily Bama Blog correspondent Brett Hudson, like he did for the BCS National Championship Game against Notre Dame, will count you down to the beginning of spring practice with another series. Each day, Brett will break down a different position group going into spring practice until the beginning of practice on March 16. Here is the schedule.
March 7th: Quarterbacks (click here to read it)
March 8th: Running backs (click here to read it)
March 9th: Wide receivers (click here to read it)
Sunday: Tight ends/H-Backs (click here to read it)
Monday: Offensive Line (click here to read it)
Yesterday: Defensive Line (click here to read it)
Today: Linebackers/Pro Day
Tomorrow: Cornerbacks
Friday: Safeties
Saturday: Opening day of spring practice

After the 2011 season, Alabama had two linebackers, Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, taken in the first 35 picks of the NFL Draft and lost another to graduation, Jerrell Harris. Yet another national championship later, the Crimson Tide is set for a similarly-loaded linebacking corps.

It starts with C.J. Mosley, the soon-to-be senior that decided to forego a rather promising NFL Draft position to stay for one more season. Mosley had very similar numbers to Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te’o.

Alabama also has returning starters in Adrian Hubbard, Trey Depriest and Xzavier Dickson. The trio combined for 133 tackles and four forced fumbles. Hubbard led the team in tackles for a loss with 11 and sacks with seven. Depriest added four tackles for a loss while Dickson added five with 3.5 sacks.

Replacing Nico Johnson in the rotation will be the alrgest task for the Tide’s linebacking corps this season, and many options present themselves. Last year, Denzell Devall saw his playing time increase as the 2012 season, his freshman campaign, progress forward. Dillon Lee’s freshman season had a similar trajectory before his suspension from the BCS National Championship Game for breaking curfew.

Other options include Tana Patrick and Reggie Ragland, both of whom saw limited action defensively last season but did play larger roles in special teams. Ryan Anderson, the other player sent home from Miami early for breaking curfew, redshirted last season and is now available to contribute.

Alabama has two recruits entering the program at this position, but neither will be in spring practice as early enrollees. The Reuben Foster saga landed in Tuscaloosa after Foster signed with the Tide on National Signing Day. Alongside Foster will be Walker Jones, the younger brother of both Barrett and Harrison. Walker is the only one of the three brothers to play on the defensive side of the ball.

Breakdown: Two seniors (Patrick and Mosley), three juniors (Depriest, Dickson and Hubbard), three sophomores (Ragland, Lee and Devall), one redshirt freshman (Anderson) and two true freshmen (W. Jones and Foster, neither in for the spring).

Prediction: Depriest, Mosley, Hubbard and Dickson are no-brainers for the coaching staff in their starting spots, with healthy splashes of Devall thrown in. Lee, Ragland and Anderson will be competing for a 6th spot of sorts, while the other two will be relegated to special teams assignment or late-game situations in blowouts.

Usually, freshmen that do not early enroll do not have much of a chance at playing immediately in an important role, but Foster and Jones are the exceptions. Foster’s talent had him ranked as the No. 1 linebacker in the nation by certain experts and Jones’ ties to the program should make his transition as seamless as possible. One of these two freshmen could steal the show in the fall, much like Devall did last year.

Nick Saban, football team accept Iron Bowl trophy

The ODK-Foy Sportsmanship Trophy, given to the winner of the Iron Bowl every year. (Copyright photo by Brett Hudson)

The ODK-Foy Sportsmanship Trophy, given to the winner of the Iron Bowl every year. (Copyright photo by Brett Hudson)

As the tradition goes, the victors of the 2012 Iron Bowl received the traveling ODK-Foy Sportsmanship Trophy during halftime of Alabama’s home basketball game against Auburn.

Below, we have video of the players taking the court for the presentation, Alabama head coach Nick Saban addressing the crowd, linebacker Nico Johnson after the presentation and a small surprise included.

Ex-Tide tight end Williams scores TD in Senior Bowl

Michael Williams (89) after a catch in the Senior Bowl. (AP photo by Dave Martin)

Michael Williams (89) after a catch in the Senior Bowl. (AP photo by Dave Martin)

Alabama tight end Michael Williams caught two passes for 39 yards and a touchdown in the Senior Bowl on Saturday.

In the South’s 21-16 win, Williams latched onto a 20-yard scoring throw from game MVP EJ Manuel of Florida State. The touchdown gave the South a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.

Linebacker Nico Johnson had four tackles, while safety Robert Lester had one. Long-snapper Carson Tinker also participated in the game.

South Alabama defensive back B.J. Scott, a transfer from Alabama, had three tackles.

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Alabama’s Senior Bowl group has much to prove

Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson, left, stops Florida running back Mike Gillislee at Senior Bowl workouts. (AP photo by Dave Martin)

Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson, left, stops Florida running back Mike Gillislee at Senior Bowl workouts. (AP photo by Dave Martin)

John Zenor of The Associated Press has written an excellent story about Alabama players at the Senior Bowl. Here’s the piece:

MOBILE, Alabama. (AP) — Linebacker Nico Johnson spent much of his Alabama career rotating with C.J. Mosley as the designated run-stopper.

Johnson is aiming to use the week leading up to Saturday’s Senior Bowl to start proving that role doesn’t mean he can’t be a complete player in the NFL.

He said he wants to show “that I’m a much better player than what people think.”

“I can be more of a sideline than straight-ahead player. I can cover,” Johnson said.

He and the rest of the Crimson Tide’s Senior Bowl contingent have more to prove than some of the more highly rated players from the two-time defending national champions.

Johnson, safety Robert Lester, tight end Michael Williams and long-snapper Carson Tinker are the remaining players from a group that could have been larger.

Offensive linemen Barrett Jones and D.J. Fluker are out with injuries, while guard Chance Warmack — perhaps the Tide’s highest rated player — declined the invitation. So did defensvie tackle Jesse Williams.

Cornerback Dee Milliner and tailback Eddie Lacy — both juniors — weren’t eligible unlike Fluker, who was a fourth-year player who has already graduated. Warmack, Milliner, Lacy and Fluker have all been rated as potential first-round picks.

The guys who are able to participate in the showcase game for NFL prospects are hoping the week will improve their stock.

“There’s a lot of talent out here and a great opportunity to show the world what you’re capable of,” Lester said. “Every day’s a chance to go out there and shine.”

He and Johnson were key players the past few seasons alongside more acclaimed stars.

Johnson was third on the team with 55 tackles as a senior while Mosley was earning All-America honors.

He got considerable playing time against run-oriented teams like LSU and far less — a mere five snaps — against Texas A&M’s spread offense.

Lester collected 48 tackles and a team-high four interceptions this season, and led the Southeastern Conference with eight picks two years ago.

Like Fluker, he played for Foley High School, about 30 minutes from Mobile.

“It’s so close to my hometown,” Lester said. “I’ve always told myself, ‘I’ve got to play in that game. I’ve just got to play in that game.’ It means a lot to me.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban said Lester was a good leader and strong performer on the field.

“I’m sure everybody’s going to try to evaluate his range,” Saban said. “He made a lot of interceptions and a lot of big plays for us. I think he’s definitely got a future in the National Football League.”

Williams, meanwhile, is known as more of a blocker than a pass catcher. The 6-foot-5, 272-pounder did catch four touchdowns passes, including a 3-yarder in the BCS championship game against Notre Dame.

Again, Saban makes a case for his style of play in the NFL.

“Some people would say he’s not a big threat vertically down the field with his speed, but I think there’s a place for guys like Michael Williams who are tough physically and great competitors, has good hands and can make plays,” he said.

Fluker receives OK to go to Senior Bowl

Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron (10) with offensive linesman D.J. Fluker (76) and running back Eddie Lacy (42) after Lacy's 73-yard touchdown run. (AP photo by L.G. Patterson)

Alabama’s AJ McCarron (10) with D.J. Fluker (76) and Eddie Lacy (42) after Lacy’s touchdown against Missouri. (AP photo by L.G. Patterson)

TUSCALOOSA, Alabama — Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker has accepted a Senior Bowl invitation even though he’s not a senior.

Fluker has declared for the NFL draft in April and will bypass his senior season. Typically, only seniors play in the Senior Bowl, which will be Saturday in Mobile.

According to a release from the Senior Bowl, game organizers successfully petitioned the NFL to include Fluker and Syracuse’s Justin Pugh this year because both are fourth-year players who redshirted as freshmen and have completed their undergraduate degrees.

The release said they will be the first non-seniors in the game’s 64-year history.

Fluker is a three-year starter and made first-team All-Southeastern Conference and second-team Associated Press All-American.

Five former Alabama teammates will join him in Mobile: center Barrett Jones, safety Robert Lester, linebacker Nico Johnson, tight end Michael Williams and long snapper Carson Tinker. Jones will not play because he is recovering from surgery on his foot.

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Opinion: A Smart man gives Tide a defensive edge

This is my opinion column for today’s editions:

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Alabama ranks first nationally in total defense, and it’s a large reason the Crimson Tide will enter Monday night’s BCS National Championship Game as a 10-point favorite.

Alabama's Kirby Smart deserves his share of the credit for the Tide's performance on defense. (Copyright photo by Gary Cosby Jr. of The Decatur Daily)

Alabama’s Kirby Smart deserves his share of the credit for the Tide’s performance on defense. (Copyright photo by Gary Cosby Jr. of The Decatur Daily)

But who deserves the credit? Is this Alabama head coach Nick Saban‘s defense, while Kirby Smart is little more than a glorified position coach who has the coordinator title and draws a nice salary? Or has Saban simply laid down the guidelines for Smart, who has taken them and imagined something that’s a little different and just as productive as what his boss might produce?

The truth is somewhere in between.

Certainly, the defensive-minded Saban has coached since 1973, two years before Smart was born. Saban coordinated his first defense in 1983 when Smart was 7. In addition, Smart had only one year of experience as a defensive coordinator (2001 at Division II Valdosta State) when Saban hired him in 2008.

It didn’t seem like such a big deal when Saban named Smart the defensive coordinator. After all, we all just knew for an absolutely certainty Smart wouldn’t be allowed to run the actual defense, wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Sarcasm intended.

But if football is a class and Saban is the teacher, then Smart is the A-plus student. He willingly says Saban has made him the coach he is today. And that’s an awfully good one.

Part of managing a team includes replacing yourself on your coaching staff, and Saban, the ace defensive coordinator, has replaced himself with … an ace defensive coordinator.

Smart, 37, really does run Alabama’s defense. Of course, Saban has the final say over Smart’s plans. But has taken the base of knowledge Saban has given him and created something that can win big.

Because of that, Smart has earned such trust from Saban he gets more freedom to do what he wants than offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. To be fair, Nussmeier has coordinated Alabama’s offense for only 13 games. Meanwhile, Smart has had five years to prove over and over he deserves the long leash Saban gives him.

“We speak the same language and have been on the same page for a long time, so I have total faith, trust and confidence in what he’s doing during the game in terms of calling the game as well as making adjustments,” Saban said recently.

It’s easy to get confused about who actually runs the defense because Saban almost never allows his staff members to speak to reporters. Saban always serves as the spokesman for the defense, leading reasonable people to believe he created it and runs it.

The no-interview policy is nothing against Smart. Instead, Saban has told reporters he wants one voice — and one voice only — to represent his program.

But when Smart gets a rare chance in front of reporters, as he did Thursday in a 40-minute session, he looks a little less like a Barney Rubble look-a-like and a little more like a potential head coach.

The players say Smart has shown he can be just as tough as Saban. When Smart first joined the Alabama staff, he handled the safeties. Robert Lester, now a senior and a three-year starter, was a freshman destined to be redshirted that season.

Lester said he struggled so badly to understand one day, Smart told him to get off the field.

But the players say Smart also teaches and analyzes exceptionally well, too. Lester said Smart telling him to get off the field helped focus his attention. Smart eventually got through to him, and you see the result today.

Linebacker Nico Johnson said when the defensive players leave the field, Smart is there, already giving the answers to any questions they possibly could have.

Johnson said it’s why he is called “Coach Smart.” He’s the coach of the defense, and he’s, well, smart.

When Smart leaves for a head coaching job, it won’t be gloom and doom for Alabama defense. Saban will find another bright young coach to handle.

But at that time, we’ll see if Smart has absorbed Saban’s biggest lesson — don’t forget to replace yourself. When Smart becomes the head coach, he’ll need his own ace coordinator to imagine another great defense.

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Tide players’ meeting helps boost Thursday practice

Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson meets with reporters Friday morning.

Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson meets with reporters Friday morning.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — Alabama’s first practice in South Florida went well, and linebacker Nico Johnson and safety Robert Lester said a players meeting beforehand might’ve helped.

Alabama practiced Tuesday and Wednesday morning before flying down to Miami on Wednesday afternoon. Those two practices weren’t the best, hence the meeting.

“Guys were so ready to be here,” Lester said this morning during Alabama’s BCS media session. “I think we were looking ahead to being here.

“We were working on fundamentals, and I think guys were not thinking about getting ready for a game. Now that we’re here, the guys are thinking about the game.”

Added Johnson: “We just felt meeting was something we needed to do.”

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The Crimson Tide, the trip to Miami and Twitter

MIAMI, Florida — Some of the better Twitter posts from Alabama players as they traveled to Miami today and checked into the Fountainbleau Miami Beach:

And this one from a fan:

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Two Tide players accept Senior Bowl invitations

Alabama safety Robert Lester will play in the Senior Bowl on Jan. 26, 2013, in Mobile. (AP photo by Jeff Roberson)

Alabama safety Robert Lester will play in the Senior Bowl on Jan. 26, 2013, in Mobile. (AP photo by Jeff Roberson)

TUSCALOOSA, Alabama — Alabama safety Robert Lester and long-snapper Carson Tinker have accepted invitations to the Senior Bowl, which announced the news today.

They join Crimson Tide linebacker Nico Johnson, who accepted an invitation Wednesday.

A fourth Alabama senior, noseguard Jesse Williams, said Thursday he has received a Senior Bowl invitation but likely will decide after the BCS National Championship Game whether to accept.

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Tide seniors haven’t forgotten the fun of 2009 SEC Championship Game

Nick Saban’s 2009 Alabama team beat Florida in the SEC Championshp Game. (AP photo by David Goldman)

This is my story for today’s print editions:

ATLANTA — The last time Alabama played in the Georgia Dome, the Crimson Tide whipped Tim Tebow‘s Florida Gators and won the program’s first SEC title in 10 years.

The players enjoyed a shower of confetti after the dominating 32-13 victory, and for a little while at least, they celebrated their championship as if nothing else mattered.

So, if you’re wondering if Alabama will look past Georgia today and peek ahead just a little to Notre Dame and the BCS National Championship Game, consider that day in 2009.

“I was a freshman that year, and in a way, the SEC Championship Game was more fun than the national championship game,” senior linebacker Nico Johnson said. “It’s a great place to play, and it’s a great game.”

That memory appears to have motivated the Tide players old enough to be part of it, as No. 2-ranked Alabama (11-1) faces No. 3 Georgia (11-1) today in the Georgia Dome.

Four current Tide players appeared in that 2009 game, including Johnson, safety Robert Lester, offensive lineman Barrett Jones and tight end Michael Williams.

“We remember how that game felt,” Williams said.

Today also is a chance for Alabama to gain a bit of redemption from a year ago. Even though the Tide won the national championship, it didn’t qualify for the SEC Championship Game. LSU beat Georgia in last year’s game.

“It was a big deal for our team because that was one of the goals this year and now we have a chance to go out the same way we came in and as a senior unit and a leadership group, that’s what we try to do,” Williams said. “That’s what we strived to do this season.”

Lester played on special teams in 2009, making one solo tackle in the win over Florida.

“Just the title of it being the SEC championship makes it such a huge game,” he said. “Two SEC teams, two of the top SEC teams battling against each other in the Georgia Dome, what else can you say about it?”

And as for 2009, he added, “We played against a Florida team that had Tim Tebow, that was almost perfect. And they came out and made plays and we were ready for that game and played a great game.”

Senior offensive guard Chance Warmack played in five games in 2009, but didn’t appear in the SEC Championship Game. He is from Atlanta and is eager to get a chance to play in his hometown.

Also, he will play against Georgia for the first time. The Crimson Tide and Bulldogs haven’t played each other since 2008.

“Ah, man, people have been calling me since right after the Auburn game,” Warmack said. “It’s an exciting thing for me and for my teammates who are from Georgia. This is another type of game that you hope for.

“I had never played against Georgia before. I wasn’t here in 2008. I’m happy that everything arranged itself for me to play Georgia this year.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban has coached in this game four times, winning with LSU in 2001 and 2003 and Alabama in 2009 and losing with Alabama in 2008.

“To me, in all those games that I’ve been a part of, this is about as good as any game in the country other than the national championship game,” Saban said.

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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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