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The Saban All-Underappreciated Team: The Front-Seven Run Stuffers

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The game is still won by he who runs the ball and stops the run

Alabama v Penn State Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

As we wrote last week, given the changes in Alabama’s defense over the years and a distinctly different era of football, trying to take a shot at the moving target of position-by-position comparisons is a folly.

So, instead we’re breaking down the front seven into three categories:

  • Pass Rushers
  • Pass Defenders
  • Run Defenders

Last week, we covered a few players who were not fully appreciated for their ability to affect the passing game from the front seven. Today, we’re going to look at a trio of players who were dominant run defenders, if not quite ever earning the recognition they deserved.

Terrence Cody, Nose Tackle

How do you underappreciate a two-time All-American? Call it a strength of the DT position, but Roll ‘Bama Roll readers chose Da’Ron Payne and Quinnen Williams instead of Mount Cody to anchor the middle. They’re better all-around players, for sure. But, this works out quite well for our underappreciated, since you could not find a more purpose-built, pivot man in the standard 3-4 than Cody.

Terrence Cody was a giant of a man, entering Alabama from Gulf Coast CC nearing 400 pounds. That weight would always limit his effectiveness and his snaps on the field. He struggled with it throughout college, being listed at 335 pound (but likely much closer to 360+). But, if you are a defensive coordinator facing a for-sure running play on fourth-and-one, there’s probably not been a better man for the job than Cody.

His stats won’t wow you. He had just 12 a sack in college — his very first play. He forced one fumble and recovered another. He only registered 19 solo tackles (52 total). But he did what few people have been able to do at the position in the modern game. He routinely defeated double-and-triple teams, standing up his man for the linebackers to clean up the play. He pushed entire interior lines two-yards back, and made the Alabama front seven a terrifying force absolutely incapable of being ran upon — the Crimson Tide did not surrender a 100-yard-rusher in the two years he started.

Cody also added two blocked kicks to his college resume. Both came in the same game, as you may recall.

Call it being a product of the wrong era, but had Terrence been picked in the 1980 draft instead of the 2010 draft, his career was apt to have been much longer. He was the best pure nose tackle Alabama turned out in decades.

Jesse Williams, Defensive Tackle

Alabama was truly blessed along the defensive line.

After the affable Cody departed, we were immediately treated to the high-intensity, absolute cad that was Aussie Jesse Williams, “Tha Monstar.”

Another squat fireplug at 6’3”, 330 pounds, Williams was renowned for being the strongest man on the team, and perhaps its most intense. Unlike Cody, Williams was extremely athletic in his own right. He had more speed, the mobility to flex outside, and readily got his hands up in the passing game.

Though a better all-around player than Cody, Williams represented a transition from the era of pure nose tackles to those defensive tackles with the ability to play inside-out, as we would next see with A’Shawn Robinson. But, Jesse still did all of those things that you demand of a pure nose: he had the strength to eliminate blocks and stand up defenders for the linebackers, often commanding double teams. He just happened to also add an improved pass rush and greater awareness in the passing game.

Over his two year career, Williams recorded 61 tackles (17 solo), 6.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, and 3 PBUs. He also gave Tide fans immense pleasure. His joy was infectious on and off the field.

Jesse looked to be a steal in the 5th round for the Seattle Seahawks before life began giving him the stinkeye. Less than three months after signing his rookie deal, Williams blew out a knee that would cost him the entire 2013 season on the IR. The next August, almost a year to the day, Williams was again placed on the IR and lost another season for another knee injury.

When 2015 rolled around, things seemed to be looking up for Williams, who was finally healthy — when the unkindest cut of all was dealt: Jesse was diagnosed with cancer. He fought through that battle, and is now healthy, but Williams was out of football.

But, the Monstar has a new career, and a new lease on life. First he was brought in at the Capstone, where he was an assistant under Scott Cochran. And now, Tha Monstar is coaching Olympic powerlifters. Fitting for a man that can bench 600 pounds.

Get ‘em, Jesse.

Nico Johnson, Weakside Inside Linebacker

Nico Johnson is the guy we tend to forget. He didn’t play the sexy inside position — Johnson was the off-ball, weak ILB, the Will. Playing alongside C.J. Mosley, Rolando McClain, and Dont’a Hightower didn’t leave much room for glory on the inside. But Johnson was an astonishingly productive player during his four years on campus.

Hailing from Andalusia (AL), Johnson was the No. 2 ILB (No. 3 overall LB), and No. 17 player in nation in the class of 2009. He arrived on campus and earned immediate playing time on the 2009 National Championship Crimson Tide team. Following Hightower’s injury, Johnson would be pressed into starting duty, playing alongside Rolando McClain. Overall, Nico played in 12 games that season, and immediately showed flashes of the productivity we’d see throughout his career. As a freshman, he notched 28 tackles (17 solo), 4.5 TFL, a sack, a forced fumble, and batted down two passes.

The next season, he and Hightower frequently swapped positions on the inside, primarily because of Johnson’s playmaking ability. And in 2011 and 2012, he would stake out his claim to the Will spot and stay there all the way to, and through, his NFL career.

Over four years, with three of them starting, Johnson gained a well-earned reputation for sniffing out running plays early, getting penetration, and finishing backs off with crisp tackling. During his career, Nico racked up 163 tackles (87 solo) and 16.5 TFL. To that impressive resume, he added 2 INT, 2 sacks, 3 FF, 1 FR, and defensed 6 passes.

Johnson earned just one Freshman All-SEC award during his career. But, man, he was such a good, solid player — the kind that wins titles. And Nico was a winner. He was drafted in the fourth round by the Kansas City Chiefs toting around two SEC title and three BCS Championship rings.

Johnson is doing quite well for himself post-NFL. Saban protege Billy Napier has hired Johnson for his staff with the ULL Ragin’ Cajuns.