While it's tempting to blame the defense's struggles last season on the young secondary, the more I think about it and the more I watch highlights from last year our decline in the dominance of the front seven from the 2009 levels is sticking out more and more. I've already talked about Josh Chapman and the need for the defensive line to develop an identity this year, but truth be told this year's model of the d-line is more than likely going to be a completely different creature than the one we're used to seeing, i.e. a more athletic unit built around rushing the passer than big space eaters forming an impenetrable wall. The heart and soul of the defense is instead going to be the linebacking corps, a unit of tremendous depth, talent and experience but, much like the defensive line, also a unit that's going to have to find a consistent rotation and identity of it's own. With Courtney Upshaw injured in the first half of the opener and Dont'a Hightower still trying to regain his pre-injury form from early 2009, the staff shuffled and shuffled all season long in an attempt to effectively hide the fact that we had a lot of talented players with specific skill sets for specific situations, but no real cohesive grouping that could be counted on as a base defensive grouping. That simply has to change this year, and a healthy Nico Johnson would go a long way towards rectifying the situation.
Johnson was pressed into service as a true freshman in 2009 after the aforementioned injury to Dont'a Hightower ended his season. Johnson played well enough to earn Freshman All-SEC honors by the end of the season, playing in 12 games (starting three) and recording 28 total tackles, 4.5 TFLs, and one sack from the Will position. With Rolando McClain moving on to the NFL at the end of the season and Hightower expected back at 100% and ready to fill those shoes, most (including myself) expected Johnson to continue at Will in '10. Well, what did we know? Jerrell Harris, who has bounced around from OLB to ILB and back again more times than I can count, initially started beside Hightower before finally yielding to Johnson against Arkansas and moving back outside to the more natural Sam position. Not only did Johnson earn his first start of the season, but he was actually given the Mike position while Hightower moved back to his old Will spot. The results?
"We played the run a little bit better. We also moved Dont'a back to where he played most of his career, the money position, and I think he's a little more comfortable there. I think the combination of those two things is what contributed to us playing the run a little bit better."
Johnson played in all 13 games last year, starting six and recording 33 total tackles, and truth be told he was our best and most consistent linebacker against the run. He's a solid form tackler, strong at the point of attack, and shows good ability to both shed blocks and pursue sideline to sideline. Unfortunately, his pass coverage skills weren't nearly as impressive. Outside of an INT against Florida (forever immortalized in paint by our own accioalabama), that flaw in his overall game meant he often came off the field in favor of true freshman C.J. Mosley (who also had an INT he took back for a TD against the Gators) in passing situations. So unless science and basic ethical conduct manage to reach a point where we can create a linebacker with the run stuffing skills of Johnson and pass coverage skills of Mosley out of a mixture of the their DNA in the next three weeks, it's going to be up to one of them to step it up this season and provide a reliable, every down option in the middle this season.
I'm going with Johnson over Mosley here for two reasons. First, Johnson just plain has him beat as far as experience and time in the system goes. Second, even though Mosley showed improved size and strength against the run over the course of the spring Johnson's improvements in pass coverage were also evident. Given that the defensive line will benefit more from having big run stuffers behind them at ILB than the secondary will have from athletic linebackers roving underneath, I'll go with Johnson there, too. Let's all keep our fingers crossed that Johnson's development over the spring will continue to spill into the fall, and he can stay healthy all season.