Alabama Crimson Tide: Nico Johnson

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The recruiting classes have all been spectacular since Nick Saban took over at Alabama in 2007. Simply put, there hasn’t been a better program in college football at gathering, signing and developing blue-chip recruits over the past decade or so.

[+] EnlargeTrent Richardson
AP Photo/Greg TrottFormer Alabama tailback Trent Richardson was ranked as the No. 6 prospect in the Class of 2009.
But all we’ve done the past few days has led us to answer this difficult question: Which class was the best and most impactful of Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa? The 2008 class started it all with guys like Julio Jones and Mark Ingram, and the 2011 class had upward of nine future NFL players with potential first-round picks Cyrus Kouandjio and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. And all that goes without mentioning the three consecutive No. 1-ranked classes from 2012-14 that are still in the process of maturing.

So determining the best class, in that context, was not easy. Our Nos. 2 and 3 classes both had arguments for the top spot. But ultimately the decision was simple: The Class of 2009 was too talented and too deep to keep from coming out No. 1 on our list. Too many current and future professional players dotted the 30-man signing class to ignore.

There was not only the drama of Trent Richardson’s announcement (Saban was uncharacteristically “elated, ecstatic, happy and really pleased," when he signed), but there was also the risk of taking just one quarterback in the class. Obviously, that maneuver paid off as AJ McCarron became arguably the most decorated quarterback in SEC history.

“We thought AJ McCarron was an outstanding prospect in our state,” Saban told reporters way back on Feb. 4, 2009. “Once he committed to us, we felt like someone had to be at least as good as him or better if we were going to take another player at that position. I think that is just kind of how it worked out.”

As it turned out there wasn’t anyone better. And it's just one reason why the 2009 class should go down as the most impactful of Saban’s tenure at Alabama.

The stars: McCarron has the chance to go down as the best quarterback in Alabama history, surpassing Goliath's like Joe Namath, Kenny Stabler and Jay Barker. With two championships as a starter and a slew of passing records to his name, he’s clearly the headliner of the class. But he’s not alone, not by a long shot. Richardson was the No. 1 running back in the country and became the first back taken in the 2012 NFL Draft, going third overall. The second running back Alabama took -- the lesser known Eddie Lacy -- would get drafted a year later and become the Offensive Rookie of the Year with the Green Bay Packers in 2013. On the other side of the ball, Dre Kirkpatrick lived up to the hype as the No. 1 cornerback in the country, going in the first round of the draft to the Cincinnati Bengals. And Chance Warmack surpassed all expectations when he rose from a midlevel college prospect to the top offensive guard in the country to a first round pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2013.

[+] EnlargeDre Kirkpatrick
AP Photo/David KohlAlabama signed three prospects ranked in the top 12 of the Class of 2009, including cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (No. 4).
The contributors: Anthony Steen was much more than a contributor, but considering how he came to Alabama as the No. 39 defensive tackle in the country it’s a wonder he developed into a three-year starter at guard and a hopeful NFL draft pick. His career was arguably more fruitful and definitely more consistent than that of D.J. Fluker, who went from being the No. 1 offensive tackle in the 2009 class to a first round pick of the San Diego Charger’s in 2013. Along with Steen, signees like Nico Johnson, Ed Stinson, Quinton Dial and Kevin Norwood carved out nice careers at Alabama with the type of accomplishments that would land them on the radar of NFL executives.

The letdowns: Compared to other top classes, there were very few letdowns to come from 2009’s crop of signees. Really, all of Alabama’s top five prospects panned out. Had Johnson not had C.J. Mosley behind him, his career might have been looked upon with more favor, and still he was a solid SEC linebacker who would get drafted in the fourth round by the Kansas City Chiefs. But there were some misses as Kendall Kelly never really caught on, Tana Patrick never became more than a sub off the bench, and Petey Smith never stuck around, transferring to a community college in 2011. The biggest whiff of all had to be Darrington Sentimore, though, and not because he was a heralded prospect like the others. The No. 20-ranked defensive tackle wound up transferring to a junior college and then on to Tennessee where he developed into one of the more disruptive defensive linemen in the SEC.

The results: All told, 13 of Alabama’s 30 signees in 2009 are playing in the NFL currently or have futures in the league in 2014. As far as percentages go, that’s a success rate even the most accomplished programs can be proud of. Churning out NFL prospects is one thing, though. Taking five-stars and sending them to the league isn’t unheard of. No, the most impressive thing was the depth of the class as a whole. Not only did blue-chip prospects like Kirkpatrick, McCarron and Richardson pan out, so did developmental recruits like Warmack, Steen, Norwood and Lacy. To have that range of success is almost unheard of. Saban and his staff really did it all with the 2009 class, not only signing the top talent in the country, but also doing the more difficult thing by developing many of them into accomplished players.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Much like the Crimson Tide's showing at the NFL combine last month, Wednesday's pro day on the University of Alabama campus will have a distinctly limited feel as many of its participants are still battling injuries sustained during the season.

The biggest setback to the event -- which will air live on ESPN3 at 10:30 a.m. CT -- came on Sunday night when ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that Eddie Lacy will not participate in the workout because of a lingering hamstring injury. The running back, widely considered to be most valuable at his position in the draft, will instead wait for the soreness to subside and perform for scouts at a later date, according to the report.

Like many of his teammates, Lacy will have to watch the drills from afar. Center Barrett Jones said he will attend but will only participate in the bench press portion of the event. Cornerback Dee Milliner, who is the No. 2 player on Mel Kiper Jr.'s Big Board and a likely top-five selection, won't work out either. He was scheduled to have surgery on a torn labrum today.

Nonetheless, the program must go on, even with some of its headliners sidelined. For those expected to participate, the chance to make a final positive impression on NFL personnel is at stake. A bad combine? A poor interview? So-so tape? All that could be put aside with a solid showing tomorrow. With the help of ESPN college football and NFL draft analyst Kevin Weidl, here are TideNation's top three players with the most to gain from Alabama's pro day:

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With two days of testing down and two more to go, many of Alabama's 10 representatives at the NFL combine in Indianapolis have already been put through the ringer. The early results for some are in, but check back throughout the day for the latest.

[+] EnlargeEddie Lacy
AP Photo/Romeo GuzmanEddie Lacy won't partake in drills at the NFL combine, but will perform at Alabama's pro day.
RB Eddie Lacy
Combine results: N/A
The latest: For the next week or so until Alabama holds its pro day, NFL general managers and scouts will have to rely on game film when breaking down the top-rated running back in the draft. A small tear of the hamstring kept Lacy from participating in drills in Indianapolis, but he made the trip all the same to weigh in and take part in team interviews. ESPN's John Clayton believes there wasn't a first-round running back on the field Sunday, which could be good news for Lacy. A strong pro day -- tentatively set for March 13 -- could be the final push Lacy needs to separate himself from the rest of the class and solidify his first-round status.

OT D.J. Fluker
Combine results: 5.31 second 40-yard dash, 21 bench press reps
The latest: Jeff Dickerson of ESPN Chicago says Fluker could be a target for the Bears with the 20th overall pick. That's how far the former Alabama right tackle has come since concerns about his weight and athleticism. Coming in at a trim 6-foot-4 and 339 pounds in Indianapolis helped nearly as much as his performance during on-field workouts. While it's still not clear whether he ends up at tackle or guard, teams are clearly interested.

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SEC's DLs, LBs strong at combine

February, 21, 2013

Several of RecruitingNation's SEC sites will look this week at the players headed to the NFL combine, which begins Friday in Indianapolis, and other predraft camps. Today: Defensive linemen and linebackers.

Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama's front seven was rock solid and had a distinctive rock-n-roll flair in nose guard Jesse Williams. Though the Crimson Tide defense lacked a true superstar, Williams' Mohawk haircut, countless tattoos and colorful face paint made the unit stand out.
  • DT Jesse Williams (Position rank: No. 8)
    Strengths: Like his counterpart on the middle of the Alabama offensive line, Barrett Jones, Williams is nothing if not versatile. He played both defensive end and nose guard at UA and possesses the type of strength and quickness that would allow him to do the same at the next level.
    Weaknesses: While Williams is above average in defending the run and the pass, he's not superb at either. His production at Alabama was less than ideal, which can be attributed to the scheme on defense, but a lack of sacks and tackles for loss highlight an inability to consistently rush the passer.
    Comparable: In terms of versatility and athleticism, he is similar to Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams.
  • ILB Nico Johnson (Position rank: No. 8)
    Strengths: Johnson -- who no longer is scheduled to attend the combine -- has the look of an NFL linebacker at 6-foot-2 and 249 pounds. He is a solid wrap-up tackler with good instincts. The fact that he has had no off-field trouble or injury concerns will only help his draft stock.
    Weaknesses: The emergence of C.J. Mosley hurt Johnson in 2012. When Alabama had to defend multiple-receiver looks, Johnson often came off the field in favor of Mosley. Johnson is built for run support, but his lack of athleticism hurts in terms of being an every-down linebacker.
    Comparable: Johnson looks and plays like New Orleans Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton. Both are sure tacklers with good instincts getting between the tackles and getting to the ball carrier.
  • DE Quinton Dial (Position rank: No. 27)
    Strengths: Every so often an Alabama player doesn't hit his potential until he has left college. Dial might be one of those guys. The big, thick defensive end has the raw size (6-foot-5, 307 pounds) and skill to play at the next level and will likely do well in team workouts leading up to the draft.
    Weaknesses: A lack of production at Alabama will create a glass ceiling for Dial. While scouts can fall in love with measurables, they still want to see the talent on tape.
    Comparable: Dial could learn a thing or two from Baltimore Ravens defensive end DeAngelo Tyson, who didn't blow away anyone at Georgia, but after being selected late in the seventh round has become a solid contributor. In terms of size, the two compare favorably, as Tyson comes in at 6-foot-2, 315 pounds.
  • Damion Square (Position rank: No. 29)
    Strengths: Square isn't going to light up the scoreboard with sacks or tackles for loss, but he's consistent. Under coach Nick Saban's watchful eye, Square developed into a solid defender against the run and pass, and understands the idea of gap-assignment football.
    Weaknesses: Simply put, Square doesn't possess the necessary athleticism to get drafted. If there is a player hurt most by missing out on the Senior Bowl, it's him.
    Comparable: N/A

Florida Gators

The heart of the Gators’ 2012 defense will participate in the combine today. DT Sharrif Floyd, whose stock is rising rapidly as he is projected to be taken as high as No. 3, had a fantastic season and anchored UF’s front. He dominated Florida State’s front, and his mixture of size, strength and quickness has scouts drooling. ILB Jon Bostic started every game the past two seasons and was UF’s leader on defense. Nobody was more dependable than Bostic. OLB Jelani Jenkins was limited in 2012 because of a broken finger, a strained hamstring and a broken foot, but when healthy he’s a solid player. OLB Lerentee McCray was forced into action at the buck position (hybrid end/linebacker) because of the injury to Ronald Powell. He didn’t produce big numbers but was a high-effort, high-motor guy.

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Alabama Class of 2009 review 

January, 24, 2013
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- As it turned out, 2008 was just the beginning. Alabama's 2009 signing class was one step ahead for Nick Saban and the coaching staff as it finished No. 2 in the country, highlighted by the likes of Dre Kirkpatrick, Trent Richardson, AJ McCarron and Eddie Lacy.

[+] EnlargeChance Warmack
AP Photo/Dave MartinTrent Richardson and AJ McCarron get the headlines, but Chance Warmack became an All-American player from the 2009 class.
But those were just the headliners. Like many of the recruiting classes to come in the years since, the 2009 class was solid top to bottom. Chance Warmack, Anthony Steen and James Carpenter were all ranked in the second half of the class. Kevin Norwood, Darrington Sentimore and Quinton Dial also came out of the lower half of the class to become playmakers at the college level.

There's no doubt, though, who the star of the class was. Richardson, the No. 1 running back from Pensacola, Fla. in the country, was stolen right out from under the Florida Gators' nose. The 5-foot-11, 219-pound athlete was an instant impact player, rushing for more than 700 yards as a true freshman. Two seasons later he was in New York City as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. A few months after that, he was selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns.
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."

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Video: Nico Johnson has another title

January, 8, 2013

Alabama's Nico Johnson looks back on winning three titles in the last four years.
The 2012-13 season is in the books. There are no more position battles to be won and no more jockeying for position in the battle to become the most valuable player for Alabama. Now we can look back and evaluate who were the best athletes to suit it up for the Crimson Tide this season.

1. LG Chance Warmack: If NFL scouts and general managers can recognize it, so can we. Warmack -- yes, a guard -- was the best player on the football field every time he suited up, and not just because of the captivating half-shirt he wore all year revealing his rather large belly. A national television audience saw just how dominant he could be against Notre Dame, as he was in on nearly every key block to spring Alabama's 265 yards on the ground. Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te'o was neutralized largely because of Warmack's efforts getting to the second level. The All-American left guard will likely go early in the first round of the upcoming NFL draft, leaving behind a legacy few can touch.

2. QB AJ McCarron: Speaking of legacies, McCarron has already sealed his. He's the only quarterback to repeat as a national champion and he holds the all-time passing touchdowns record at Alabama. All that with a year of eligibility remaining. The junior from South Alabama took a major step forward as a quarterback and as a leader this season. He finished just 77 yards shy of 3,000, completed better than 67 percent of his passes and threw a whopping 30 touchdowns to three interceptions to lead the country in passing efficiency. The scary thought? Just how good he and an improved receiving corps can be next season.

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Video: Tide title game experience a plus?

January, 6, 2013

Nico Johnson says that the experience of playing in a national championship game isn't as important as actually showing up to play that day.

Focus hasn't shifted for Tide's Smart

January, 6, 2013

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Kirby Smart has coached two national-championship defenses at Alabama.

But there will always be a special place in his heart for the one he’s coaching right now and the one he will lead onto the Sun Life Stadium field Monday night in the Discover BCS National Championship.

“I’ll tell you, this group has probably been one of my most favorite to coach since I’ve been at Alabama,” said Smart, who's in his fifth season as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. “They didn’t have bad expectations, but a lot of the media, you guys, had bad expectations for this group.

“I never was worried about their competitive character. Sure, we lost some good players ... four or five [NFL] draft picks, whatever it was, we lost off that team. But we had a lot of good players behind those guys, and this group, to me, had a little chip on their shoulder and felt slighted that people didn’t think they’d be good.”

The actual number of draft picks Alabama lost off last season’s national championship defense was six, and there were more than a few people wondering whether Smart would be able to retool this group into the kind of unit that could get the Crimson Tide back onto this stage.

Well, here they are.

[+] EnlargeKirby Smart
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsAlabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart celebrates the nail-biting finish of the SEC title game.
“All we heard about was who we didn’t have on defense, and Coach Smart reminded us more than once what everybody was saying about us,” senior linebacker Nico Johnson said. “All that mattered was that he believed in us, and we believed in each other.

“We weren’t going to be that defense that didn’t live up to the standard here at Alabama.”

Whatever happens Monday night against Notre Dame, this won’t go down as Alabama’s most talented defense, nor will it be remembered as the Crimson Tide’s most dominant defense.

But Smart loves the way this group fights, the edge it plays with and its penchant for coming up with stops in key situations.

The Crimson Tide lead the country in total defense, allowing 246 yards per game. They also lead the country in limiting plays that have gained 10 or more yards (105), and one of the reasons they do is because they don’t miss many tackles. They’ve allowed 54.7 rushing yards after contact per game this season, the second-lowest average in the country.

“We haven’t played great all the time, but we’ve played with great competitive character,” Smart said. “I mean, they have competed hard. We’ve been behind at LSU. We’ve been behind against Georgia. We lost to Texas A&M, but we were behind in that game and fought back.

“So every time these defensive guys have been challenged, they’ve responded.”

The best news for Alabama fans is that Smart is still running the Crimson Tide defense.

For several years, he’s been one of the hottest commodities in college football among assistant coaches, and he interviewed for the Auburn head-coaching job last month. There have been other head-coaching opportunities Smart has passed on.

He absolutely wants to be a head coach, but he’s also in a position that allows him to be picky.

“I have the best non-head-coaching job in the country, period,” said 37-year-old Smart, who earns $950,000 per year.

It’s why he doesn’t worry about where’s he’s going to be in three years or even 10 years.

“If you win, that takes care of itself,” Smart said, “and I’m not in such a hurry to run off and do anything. If I was 47, I might feel differently. But the most important thing to me right now is winning championships and developing young men into better players and better people.”

And although previous head-coaching experience is always a plus when you’re up for a job, Smart said there’s no substitute for the time he has spent under head coach Nick Saban.

“To me, personally, my development to become a head coach will be much better working for Coach Saban than necessarily going somewhere else because you learn every day that you’re in there,” said Smart, who was named the AFCA Assistant Coach of the Year this season.

“The experience that I’ve been able to gain through being with [Saban] is, ‘Hey, this is how you run a major program. This is the way you do it, and this is the way you question every part of your organization, therefore making it better.’”

Smart's time will come to run his own program, probably sooner rather than later.

Right now, he's too busy winning championships to worry about when the right job will come along.
Editor's note: Every day from now until kickoff in Miami, TideNation will break down the match-ups position-by-position. Today we'll look at the battle of the linebackers.

Alabama: What Alabama lost in experience from a season ago, the Crimson Tide made up for with depth. Coach Nick Saban loves to create personnel packages for every situation, whether it be third-and-long or fourth-and-goal, and with versatile linebackers like Adrian Hubbard and C.J. Mosley, he had the options to make his schemes work effectively.

[+] EnlargeManti Te'o
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireManti Te'o gets the headlines but Notre Dame's other linebackers are playmakers as well.
Mosley was the most productive linebacker this season, leading the team with 99 tackles. The last Alabama defender to break the century mark? Former All-American and eventual first-round pick Rolando McClain. Mosley sits one tackle away from 100 despite not being the clear-cut starter. He shares time with both Nico Johnson and Trey DePriest at inside linebacker depending on the formation and down and distance.

Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson are the primary options at outside linebacker. Their talent is undeniable but they've had their ups and downs. Hubbard leads the team with six sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Talented freshman Denzel Devall figures into the rotation as well. Another rookie to keep an eye on is converted defensive end D.J. Pettway, who could play at Jack where he can utilize his skill rushing the passer, an area Alabama has struggled to gain consistency.

Notre Dame: Saban called Notre Dame's front seven the best he's seen in college football this season, and it's led by a linebacker who was a strong contender to become the first purely defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. Of course Johnny Manziel took home the bronze statue, but it did nothing to diminish the play of Manti Te'o.

Te'o saved his best for last, racking up the Chuck Bednarik, Dick Butkus and Walter Camp Awards his senior year. He finished 59th in the country with 103 tackles, helping the Fighting Irish to the No. 1 scoring defense. He's the total package, with the strength to take on linemen in run support and the speed to track down receivers over the middle. If there's a linchpin to the Notre Dame defense, it's Te'o.

Outside of Te'o, Notre Dame has a pair of future NFL players in Dan Fox and Prince Shembo. Fox, who has 57 tackles, starts at inside linebacker and Shembo, who leads the team with 12 quarterback hurries, is the Irish's best pass rusher at outside linebacker. Carlo Calabrese, Danny Spond and Ishaq Williams round out the bulk of the rotation at linebacker in Brian Kelly's 3-4 alignment.

Final Verdict: Notre Dame's star power at linebacker isn't without reason. Te'o is capable of changing the outlook of the game, especially when it comes to Alabama's ability to run the football. If he can stuff the run and force the burden on the passing game, the Irish could be in good shape as UA has struggled in pass protection throughout the season, most recently in the first half against Georgia. Unlike some of the top defenses Alabama has faced, Notre Dame can stop the run and affect the pass. The Fighting Irish rank in the top 25 overall in rushing defense, passing defense, yards allowed and sacks. While Alabama has depth at linebacker, it doesn't have the top producers like Notre Dame.

Forecasting the Tide: Linebacker 

December, 27, 2012
Editor’s note: Every Tuesday and Thursday between now and national signing day, TideNation will review each position and look at who figures to start, who could rise up the depth chart and who might be on the way. Today we’ll look at the linebackers.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama didn't lack for options at linebacker this season. What the Crimson Tide lost in experience from a year ago, it made up for with depth. Their best and most productive linebacker wasn't even a starter technically.

C.J. Mosley, the junior inside linebacker who leads the team with 99 tackles, wasn't the clear-cut No. 1 at his position. Instead, he shared time with either Nico Johnson or Trey DePriest depending on the formation and down and distance. Next season he won't have to. It's part of the reason why he put the NFL on hold and announced last week that he would return for his senior season.

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Tracking the Tide: Nico Johnson

December, 11, 2012
Editor’s note: Each day between now and Alabama's date with Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship, we will review the season for a key Crimson Tide player and attempt to project what’s next for him. Today we’ll look at linebacker Nico Johnson.

No. 35 Nico Johnson
Inside linebacker
54 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles

Role in 2012: Johnson was the starting inside linebacker in the base defense, but struggled to stay on the field at times when offenses went three- and four-wide.

The good: The senior's biggest contribution on the field was in run defense, where very few ball-carriers were able to escape his grasp. But his greatest impact might have been in the locker room and on the practice field, where the veteran was the voice of leadership on a young, inexperienced defense. He positioned the defense and helped first-year starters such as Adrian Hubbard, Xzavier Dickson and Trey DePriest mature in camp and throughout the season.

The bad: There was only so much Johnson could do with his limitations. His lack of foot speed kept him off the field in most passing situations this season. When he did stay on, he was vulnerable to the pass to the tight end or the slot receiver.

Crystal ball: Johnson doesn't seem to be a first- or second-day NFL draft pick, but chances are he ends up in a camp somewhere. His size (6-foot-2, 245 pounds), adequate athleticism and intangibles will be attractive to general managers and scouts. He knows the game and has not had any off-the-field troubles since arriving in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Johnson will likely be replaced by either freshman Dillon Lee or Reggie Ragland. Other linebackers could emerge as the staff sorts out who will play inside or out.
ATLANTA -- With Alabama down three points and the SEC title and a shot at the national title hanging in the balance, Nick Saban put the game in the hands of two freshmen.

Two players barely a year out of high school football would decide the fate of Alabama’s 2012 season.

Boy did it pay off.

“Two big plays by freshmen there,” senior center Barrett Jones said.

Big doesn’t even begin to describe them. You need more hyperbole for this one, like mammoth or gargantuan.

The first play came on third-and-5 at the 50-yard line. Georgia held a 28-25 lead, and it appeared that the Tide were squandering their great field position. With about four minutes remaining, quarterback AJ McCarron stuck the ball in T.J. Yeldon’s gut, and the frosh cut to the right side and barreled his way past the first-down marker.

It was a play everyone inside the Georgia Dome or plastered to a TV set knew was coming.

Yet Georgia’s defense, which had been giving up rushing yards like men give up beads at Mardi Gras, couldn’t stop the force that was Yeldon.

“He went out there and just ran people over,” offensive lineman D.J. Fluker said of the 6-foot-2, 216-pounder. “You can’t find that too often.”

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper, Damian Swann
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's Amari Cooper hauls in the winning TD pass in front of Georgia's Damian Swann.
That play kept the Tide alive. The next play broke Georgia’s spirit.

It was a simple post play to the left side, where it’s better if Amari Cooper releases on the inside. He cut outside and stopped momentarily as he looked for McCarron. Once he saw the play was coming, he left a helpless Damian Swann in his dust before hauling McCarron’s perfectly thrown pass and waltzing into the end zone to give Alabama the winning score in a 32-28 victory.

“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games, and I wanted to come out here and be a big-time player,” said Cooper, who finished with a game-high seven catches for 127 yards and the key score. “I envisioned it before it happened, and it came true.”

He probably envisioned it because it looked easy on film, as he and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier felt confident taking shots at the Dawgs.

“That’s what we want as receivers,” Cooper said. “We want to take those shots, and that’s what we did.”

It helps that Cooper, who goes by the nickname Hollywood because of his on-field skill, is an extraordinary athlete. Before his touchdown, his play of the night came when he went up top and snatched a 44-yard prayer from McCarron away from one of the most physical players in the game in safety Bacarri Rambo in the second quarter. After that, he spent the rest of the night sprinting past or cutting by Georgia defenders and bailing Alabama’s offense out in crucial situations.

“He’s able to do the things that you would think a normal freshman wouldn’t do,” Tide linebacker Nico Johnson said. “He’s making big plays in big games, like he did today.

“He takes it and runs with it and lives to that name. He’s something special.”

To Jones, Cooper just has a different gear than a lot of players. One moment he is side-by-side with a defender; the next, he’s gone -- with the ball.

“He’s one of the fastest people I’ve ever seen,” Jones said.

Cooper stretched the field and gave Alabama more running room, which helped free Yeldon, who entered the game with just three 100-yard performances but carried the ball a game-high 25 times for a backbreaking 153 yards and a touchdown. While giving Eddie Lacy the occasional breather, Yeldon helped Alabama register an SEC championship record 350 rushing yards Saturday.

“It’s like he’s been here three times himself,” Lacy said. “As a freshman, you can’t ask him to play any better than he did tonight.”

You can’t ask more from either. They did so much for Alabama in the biggest game of either's career. Yeldon had nine runs that resulted in first downs, while Cooper had three first-down plays. Together, they touched the ball 32 times for 280 yards and two touchdowns.

Johnson tells both Cooper and Yeldon before every game to play with purpose. On Saturday, they did that and then some. This is only the beginning for these fabulous freshmen.

“I’m glad they’re freshmen because they are going to be here for a while,” offensive lineman Cyrus Kouandjio said.

That has to be a scary thought for the rest of the league.

Video: Alabama LB Nico Johnson

December, 1, 2012

Edward Aschoff talks to Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson after the Tide's SEC championship game win.


Scout's Take: Atlanta Opening Regional
National recruiting analyst Gerry Hamilton joins ESPN's Phil Murphy to discuss top performers from the Nike's The Opening regional camp in Atlanta.