Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.|
Alabama’s Rashad Johnson (49) tracks down Tennessee’s Gerald Jones (4). Johnson leads the Tide in tackles with 55 and interceptions with four.
From walk-on to Tide defensive star
After beginning college career at running back, Johnson finds a home at safety
By Josh Cooper
TUSCALOOSA — That couldn’t be a walk-on running back, making tackle after tackle, could it?
There’s no way that could have been a walk-on running back, moving into the right coverage area, the ball somehow finding its way into his arms for an interception, could there?
But it’s true — eight games into Alabama’s season, safety Rashad Johnson, a former walk-on running back, leads the Crimson Tide in tackles with 55 and interceptions with four.
“He gets a great jump on the ball. He goes up and gets the ball and he’s aggressive trying to get the ball,” Tide coach Nick Saban said. “He’s done a really good job of preparing himself each week to know what the other team is trying to do.”
Johnson came to Alabama in 2004 from Sulligent High, spurning walk-on offers from Vanderbilt and Troy State and saying “no” to scholarships from West Alabama and North Alabama.
After briefly accepting an offer from a junior college to play basketball — Tide teammate Wallace Gilberry said he has seen Johnson doing reverse dunks in the school’s recreation center — Johnson settled on Crimson Tide football.
“It was pretty much an easy decision,” Johnson said. “My dad sat down and was like, ‘Is this what you want to do?’ ”
The answer was a resounding yes.
At first, he took his lumps on the offense in 2004 when he redshirted as a running back.
But the Tide coaches figured the 6-foot-0, 187-pound Johnson had the skills to play defensive back. They moved him there in 2005.
His teammates saw his ability, too. According to Gilberry, Johnson’s vertical leap ranges from 40 to 41 inches, and his preparation for the game and knowledge for schemes set him apart.
“He’s an athlete. He played the running back position well, but he’s definitely a defensive guy,” Gilberry said. “He has a knack for hitting you and he definitely has great hands.”
Johnson played mostly on special teams in 2005, recording eight tackles. It was in 2006 when he began to blossom.
He moved to safety and started against Tennessee, Florida International and Mississippi State before an ankle injury caused him to miss the end of the regular season.
His final tally was 33 tackles, seven of which coming in a career day at the Independence Bowl. Despite the solid numbers, he never was considered a prime player on defense as the Tide headed into the 2007 season.
The one constant at defensive back was All-SEC cornerback Simeon Castille, who had six interceptions last season. With a new coaching staff and a different defensive scheme, the other positions looked like a mystery.
“He’s definitely a guy who’s been overlooked and not just this year,” Gilberry said. “He’s a guy who walked on the team. I don’t even see how the guy was a walk-on out of high school.”
So far this season, Johnson seems as if he has been in the right area at perfect times. His four interceptions are proof of that.
But there is also something else that motivates Johnson — he and Castille have a little game going of “can you top this?”
After Alabama’s win over Tennessee last week, Castille had finished answering questions from reporters in the Bryant-Denny Stadium interview room. He meandered over to Johnson, who still had a few microphones in his face. Castille just stared at him, forcing Johnson into a bit of a chuckle.
Before that game, Castille — who has two interceptions this season — was asked whether he was going to catch Johnson in interceptions. He answered, “I’ll catch him. He doesn’t know it yet, but I’ll catch him.”
Johnson takes the diplomatic route in that one: “Simeon is a great player. I’m pretty sure he’s going to catch up to me.”
Regardless of what Johnson has been through to get to where he is, he said he just feels thankful.
“There were some low points, because coming from a small school I always wanted to be on the field some way and some how,” Johnson said. “(It was tough) when I wasn’t playing and got redshirted. That’s one of the things freshmen go through when they get redshirted, but it’s the best thing that ever could have happened to me.”
Alabama Football Notebook
Honors for Crimson Tide
TUSCALOOSA — Alabama football personnel won a couple of awards last week following the Tide’s 41-17 victory over Tennessee.
Wide receiver DJ Hall was named the AT&T Player of the Week. The award is voted upon by the fans on AT&T’s Web site.
Hall received 54 percent of the votes to beat out Oregon running back Jonathan Stewart (24 percent), Tulane running back Matt Forte (12 percent) and UCLA cornerback Alterraun Verner (10 percent).
Assistant coach Major Applewhite was named the Offensive Coordinator of the Week by Master Coaches Survey.
Mustin pulls for Sox
Apparently football fans are baseball fans, too. Most Alabama football players went home for the weekend, and many said they weren’t going to watch their sport on television, so baseball is providing an alternative for a few.
“Go Red Sox!” linebacker Darren Mustin said. “I hate the Yankees. I hate them. I wanted the Cubbies to win it, but they choked. I had three teams in it.
“I wanted the Phillies the Cubs and Boston. Those were my three teams, and Boston is the only one left.”
Langham on ballot
? Hazlewood High grad Antonio Langham is one of the finalists to be named the SEC’s best defensive back as voted by the fans.
The poll is part of AT&T’s “Best of 75 years of SEC Football.”
Langham played at Alabama during 1990-93, finishing with a school-record 19 interceptions. He earned All-America honors in 1992 and ’93 and won the Jim Thorpe Award in 1993 as the nation’s best defensive back.
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