- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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MOBILE, Ala. -- Winning 49 games and three national championships only got Nico Johnson so far. The former Alabama linebacker enters the thick of Senior Bowl practice this week with plenty of questions about his game.
Is he fast enough to play in the NFL? Is he a guy who can stay on the field in running and passing situations? Is it worth it to use a draft pick on him?
Johnson is ranked the No. 8 inside linebacker according to Scouts Inc., so the question of whether he'll be taken in April's draft is likely to be answered in the affirmative. How high, however, is another question. At 6-foot-2 and 249 pounds, he has the size to play at the next level, but as pointed out in his Scouts Inc. profile, he's not an elite athlete and seems to lack the closing burst.
But Johnson isn't out to prove the skeptics wrong all at once. He's taking the laid back approach. Having played at Alabama, he's used to practicing under the watchful eye of scouts and knows that pushing too hard can get a player in trouble.
As he said, "Pressure busts pipes."
Johnson had interviews set up with Tampa Bay, Seattle, Houston and Baltimore when he spoke to reporters Monday night. He's thankful for that and looks forward to more.
"I'm blessed to have that opportunity and even say that," he said.
Johnson said he has leaned on a former teammate, Ravens outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw. And, now that the Patriots are out of the playoffs, he said he'll turn to close friend Dont'a Hightower for advice on how to handle the pre-draft process and how to do things "the right way."
So far, he has made a positive impression on his position coach, Detroit Lions linebackers coach Matt Burke.
"He's got all the leadership qualities you want," Burke said. "He's been out there, we put him at the Mike, making all the calls."
As has been the case with many of Alabama coach Nick Saban's former players, Lions coaches have been impressed with the Crimson Tide alumnus' inherent knowledge of football.
"He's got a good knowledge of the game," Burke said. "He's played football at a high level, so the transition to that isn't that hard.
"He's obviously a big kid. He's got good size. I think it will help that they've played multiple stuff [at Alabama] with some 3-4 and whatnot. We have to play a 4-3 scheme here so it will be good for him to play something different."
The biggest question, Burke said, might be Johnson's ability to stay on the field for the entire game.
"So far, like I've said, he's moved around well, which is something that people were talking about," he said. "We're going to give him a chance to do everything here. It's a good opportunity for him to showcase some of those skills people are questioning about him."
Johnson agreed. He knows what scouts and general managers are looking for out of him this week.
"Can I be an every-down back?" he said. "Can I be an every-down middle linebacker? I think I can. I just want the opportunity to showcase and go from there. If I fail, then I'm completely fine with that."
The biggest transition for Johnson, who said he signed with agent Pat Dye Jr., will be going from being a rotational player at Alabama to a full-time linebacker in the Senior Bowl. He shared the field with C.J. Mosley in Tuscaloosa, Ala., coming off the field for most passing situations. He said he had a season-low five snaps in the loss to Texas A&M but more than 50 in a last-second win over LSU.
"Sitting back thinking about it now, as you say that, yeah, who knows if it affected anything," Johnson said. "I have an opportunity this week to come out and showcase that I can do all those things, and I'm going to take advantage of it."
While he might have been able to play more had he suited up elsewhere in college, he wouldn't trade it for the experience of four seasons with Saban. It might have kept him off the field at times but it could well be the difference in him seeing the field at the next level.
"I will be OK, because being under Coach Saban it's pretty much an NFL program the way he runs it," Johnson said. "Talking to Dont'a, Rolando [McClain] and Courtney and Mark [Barron], the transition was easy for them because they played under Coach Saban. I'm ready to experience that, to see how it is. I think I'll be mentally ready."
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