By Scott Latta
UA Media Relations
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. ?? Rashad Johnson’s journey from walk-on running back to SEC defensive star is a lot longer than the 70 miles it takes to get Johnson’s hometown of Sulligent to Tuscaloosa.
It’s a journey that takes you through a stack of small-school offers, through the drudges of the Alabama depth chart, and through the Tide special teams. It takes you from Johnson’s pee-wee football days ?? when he wore No. 2 in honor of his favorite player, David Palmer ?? to his days at Sulligent High School, where his skills were equally prolific on the basketball court as they were on the field.
It takes you to his home, and to his living room, where he and his family would watch Alabama on TV; where he and his dad, a former player at Alabama A&M, would seemingly always talk football and Randy Johnson would encourage his son to follow his heart. If he didn’t want to play at the Citadel, he told him, then don’t.
Eventually, the journey takes you to Tuscaloosa and to the bottom of the Alabama running back depth chart, where Johnson was battling for air with Theo Townsend, and with Aaron Johns. It takes you to the special teams, where Johnson saw time in all 12 games as a redshirt freshman walk-on in 2005, and finally to the Alabama defense, where Johnson made his home before the 2006 Cotton Bowl in hopes of seeing more time on the field.
You could say the journey ends where it stands now, with Johnson tied for the SEC lead in interceptions, with six. But Johnson, a junior majoring in computer science and the leader of the Alabama secondary, would say that it doesn’t.
The Alabama defense ?? which is currently sixth in the SEC in total defense ?? still has miles to go.
“It’s a group of guys that’s coming together every week and getting better,” Johnson said. “We won’t know how good we are until the end of the year.”
For Johnson, it won’t take nearly that long to tell that his first full season in the Alabama secondary has been an unquestionable success. Alabama coach Nick Saban can tell you right now.
“He’s done a really good job of preparing himself each week to know what the other team is trying to do,” Saban said. “He understands the coverage scheme that we have very well and where the quarterback is going to go with the ball most of the time in those situations and puts himself in a good position. And he’s finished a lot of plays for us.”
Johnson has graded out high in a number of Alabama’s games this season, including the Tide’s 27-24 win over Ole Miss, during which Johnson recorded nine tackles and an interception. Against LSU, Johnson did one better: he graded out with more production points ?? a formula the Alabama coaches use that combines positive in-game aspects such as tackles, interceptions and correct adjustments with negative ones such as missed assignments and lack of hustle ?? than any Alabama defensive player has graded out with in any game this year.
If a player accumulates more than 20 production points in a game, Johnson said, he’s had a big game. Against LSU, he had 32.
“He’s a smart player, first of all,” Saban said. “He’s got great range. And he does play free safety for us, and he ends up free probably more than any other player to break on the ball. But he gets a great jump on the ball. He goes up and gets the ball and he’s aggressive trying to get the ball.”
Johnson’s 76 tackles are a team-high, as are his 47 solo stops. His six interceptions are tops on the team, and his five and one-half tackles-for-loss are in the top five on the Alabama defense as well.
It’s a long way from where he was just two years ago, battling for any sort of playing time on the field, paying his own way through school, when he got word from Alabama defensive backs coach Chris Ball one day that he didn’t have to worry about covering tuition anymore, that he was going on full scholarship.
“Coach Ball when I was on defense told me to enjoy it and keep it up and said, ??I want you to know to relieve you a little bit because maybe you thought you weren’t going to get anything,’” Johnson said.
The first person he told? He went back to the one that helped him through the journey that got him there.
“I was excited. First thing I did was call my dad and he was so excited he couldn’t wait. He was asking me when I was going to sign, when I was going to do this or this, and it was just a real exciting time for me and my family.”
Rashad Johnson’s journey isn’t just about overcoming any number of odds or obstacles that stood between Sulligent and Bryant-Denny Stadium. It isn’t just about interceptions, or scholarships, or even late-night father-son conversations.
It’s about respect, about having something to prove on the field. It’s about getting better, he said.
And, perhaps more importantly, it’s about to continue.
“I definitely think you have something to prove,” Johnson said. “Maybe when you walk on maybe a guy’s on scholarship and he doesn’t expect you to compete every day because you’re not on scholarship and underestimates your athletic ability. You have to prove something every day when you go out there, even after you’re on scholarship.”