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September 22, 2010

Column: Lowery becoming more than a cult favorite

Five-star recruits live vicariously through him.

He doesn't have to go to the ball to make an interception, it comes to him.

Spartans, Lions and Devils all have a week named after him.

Yes, Will Lowery is the most interesting man on the University of Alabama football team ... at least when it comes to a good story. Granted, he's not quite on the level as the Dos Equis ad campaign featuring New York actor Jonathan Goldsmith, who actually used to work on a garbage truck and has a thing for Siberian tigers, but he's certainly this year's version of a cult hit on campus.

Think of him as the anti-Terrence Cody.

"Tough question there, 'Who is Will Lowery?'" the reserve safety recently pondered. "He's a guy just looking to help the team any way he can."

If you haven't been paying attention to the roars from the student section every time he does something on the field, or joined in telling Chuck Norris-style jokes like "The best thing about being Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram is that he gets to be Will Lowery's teammate," he's the defensive player wearing No. 29 who almost looks like he should instead be screaming his head off Saturdays in the Bryant-Denny Stadium stands.

For the past two years that's where he's been doing during most games, just like when he was a kid. Even Lowery calls it all "sort of a surreal experience" because before last week the only time the walk-on made the travel roster was for the bowl trip -- when everyone goes.

The most unlikely of Crimson Tide regulars doesn't get recognized while walking across campus, is nearly never asked for his autograph and outside of the Mal Moore Athletic Facility hardly comes across as a football player in any way.

"Not really," Lowery said. "It's pretty easy to blend in.

"I'm not gifted as physically and athletically as a lot of other guys, but I just try and use it to my advantage and play with a chip on my shoulder and play harder than everyone else on the field."

So here he is, getting significant playing time on the nation's top team, surrounded by prize prospects and future National Football League draft picks.

It goes back to Hoover High School, where he helped the Bucs with the 2005 state championship and runner-up finish in 2006. One of his position coaches was Jeremy Pruitt, now the Crimson Tide's secondary coach who works alongside Nick Saban every day in practice.

Because of his size -- Lowery is listed as 5-foot-9, 188 pounds on one Crimson Tide roster and 5-10 on another, with both appearing to be generous -- he wasn't recruited by any Division I programs. Air Force and Navy showed more interest academically and he was also considering Birmingham Southern.

But Lowery had always wanted to attend Alabama, and when it became obvious that a football scholarship wasn't in his future Pruitt offered his former pupil a chance to walk-on.

"I owe a lot to him," Lowery said.

For two years he languished on the scout team and was barely taught the defensive scheme while the practice reps primarily went to proven players. As Alabama closed in on the 2009 national championship the coaches naturally concentrated on those making contributions or likely soon would.

It caused Lowery to think long and hard about his future after getting back from Pasadena.

"I don't think I thought it was too (difficult), but I definitely considered different paths in life," Lowery said. "Once I decided to stick with it, I stuck with it, and wanted to kind of finish it up.

"The positives outweighed the negatives, definitely. It wasn't a really tough decision once I thought about it with a level head."

Although everyone knew the depth chart would be pretty thin at safety, with Justin Woodall, Ali Sharrief and Tyron King Jr. all moving on, the scarcity was compounded by Robby Green being suspended for the entire season and Rod Woodson transferring. Lowery took advantage in the spring, kept improving over summer and by the time fall camp rolled around was entrenched in the dime package and on numerous special-teams units.

The guy who made the first pickoff against Penn State when the quarterback got drilled by Dont'a Hightower? That was Lowery.

The player who on a dropped pass still hit the receiver so hard it could be heard in the enclosed Duke press box? Yep, Lowery.

The one who got called for a block to the back against San Jose State, nullifying a big kick return by Trent Richardson? Ok, that one didn't go so well.

"I think there are some guys on your team that just have the capabilities of being responsible to do a job," Saban said. "They love to play, they play hard but they play smart, they do the right things and they try to do it the way they're coached to do it. I think in putting all those things together you come up with a pretty efficient player that does his job on a pretty consistent basis, and that's what Will has done."

Just about every successful team has, and needs, a Will Lowery of some sort, someone who ignores conventional wisdom and finds a way to contribute. The Crimson Tide has had more than its fair share of them lately, like Sulligent's Rashad Johnson, who walked on as a running back and became an All-American safety, and linebacker Cory Reamer, another Hoover product.

There's no secret to their success.

"The only thing I can say is hard work, I guess," Lowery said. "We have a lot of guys here looking to contribute. I've been obviously blessed with a tremendous opportunity, with the lack of depth at the position. We have a lot of guys who can play, but we're so deep they don't get to see the field.

"It's been a long journey. I've definitely paid my dues to get here."

Or in the words of someone else, he stays thirsty.



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