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December 3, 2008

Johnson has exceeded expectations for Tide

A Heisman recipient will be across the line of scrimmage. So will several other players who had more stars following their name during the recruiting process than a Park Avenue hotel.

Yet a key figure in Alabama's quest to slow down Tim Tebow and Florida's high-powered offense in Saturday's SEC Championship Game is a small-town kid few thought could play Division I college football.

Even though free safety Rashad Johnson has proved himself over and over, he's still amazed at where he is - especially considering where he was.

"I couldn't envision being put in the position I'm in right now from where I started," Johnson said. "It truly is a blessing. It had to be someone other than me who put me in this position."

That reference isn't to former Alabama coach Mike Shula's plan to shift Johnson to safety from running back when he was buried on the depth chart. Nor was it referring to Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, under whose tutelage Johnson has flourished. Instead, divine intervention might be the best way to explain how a former walk-on from tiny Sulligent, Ala., population 2,150 has become an All-America caliber player on the No. 1 team in the nation.

"He's certainly an outstanding player for us," Saban said recently. "He's been very productive, probably one of the brightest players I've ever had the opportunity to coach, probably understands and knows what we're doing defensively as well as any of the coaches do or even as well as I do.

"He makes a lot of checks. Players have a lot of confidence when he's on the field because of his understanding. On top of all that, he's a tremendous player for us. Somebody ought to hire that guy to be a CEO of a company. He'll do a good job for them."

For now, Johnson is content to play for the Crimson Tide, something he cherishes so much he would pay to do it. In fact, he has.

Although he was a star athlete in Sulligent, which is about 10 miles from the Mississippi border, in northwest Alabama, Johnson was ignored by big-time programs.

Division II schools West Alabama and North Alabama offered scholarships and he received interest from junior colleges, but Johnson aimed higher. He talked it over with his parents, Randy and Gloria, and decided to walk-on at Alabama instead.

"I was an Alabama fan when I was young, so I was just living a dream there in itself," Johnson said.

He eventually earned a scholarship, then a starting job in 2006.

"Once I got on the field and got to playing and Coach Saban got here, he improved my game so much with just little things, helping me out on the mental part of the game," Johnson said. "I was just able to learn from him so much and be able to take it on the field every week."

He's definitely made his mark on the field.

Johnson leads the SEC with 16 pass breakups. He's fourth in the conference with five interceptions he had three against LSU and has returned two for touchdowns. He is second on the team with 73 tackles.

Alabama's pass defense has been good. The Crimson Tide allow an average of 174.9 yards to rank 20th in the nation and have given up 12 touchdown passes. Overall, Alabama's defense ranks third in the nation and has allowed one touchdown or fewer in four of its past five games.

Johnson acknowledges that the Tide defense will have to be at its best against Florida.

"The biggest challenge is when [Tebow] drops back to pass to keep him in the pocket and make sure we cover down the field," Johnson said. "Some plays I've seen him make, a guy misses a tackle and he'll launch it 60 yards down the field because the defenders will stop playing because they think he's sacked.

"We've got to keep playing until the whistle blows because with this guy, he's able to make any play that a quarterback needs to make to win games."

That's true. But Alabama has a free safety who can do that, too.

Random thoughts and observations

Remember the outrage two years ago when Alabama agreed to pay Saban $4 million per season? Now consider that Tennessee will pay Lane Kiffin $2 million in 2009. Kiffin has no college victories, so isn't a coach with 112 victories, a national championship and three conference championships worth twice as much?

Could history be repeating itself? The last time Alabama won a national championship was in 1992. That season, the Crimson Tide went undefeated, shut out Auburn in the regular-season finale, then beat Florida in the SEC Championship Game. Of course, that team beat Miami in the national championship game and the Hurricanes aren't a factor this year. But the BCS championship game is in Miami. (Cue eerie "X-Files" music here.)

N.C. State finished with a four-game winning streak to gain bowl eligibility. But of no doubt more importance in Raleigh is that the Wolfpack can claim to be state champions. NCSU was 4-0 against the state's other Football Bowl Subdivision (i.e., Division I-A) programs, having posted wins over East Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest and North Carolina.

Connecticut running back Donald Brown, who has gained 1,633 yards in 11 games, needs 97 yards against Pittsburgh on Saturday to surpass Iowa's Shonn Greene as the nation's leading rusher. That could be difficult: Connecticut has trouble throwing and Pittsburgh's rush defense ranks 23rd in the nation though Green did rush for 147 yards against the Panthers.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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