Georgia Bulldogs: Nico Johnson
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.
Georgia’s time to shine in Indianapolis will arrive Monday, when the defensive linemen and linebackers take the field for their combine workouts. The Bulldogs will have six players on the field, including a trio -- John Jenkins, Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree -- who have a strong chance to become first-round draft picks in April.
- NG Kwame Geathers (Position rank: No. 14)
Strengths: Geathers’ greatest strength as a pro prospect is his size (6-foot-6, 355 pounds), which will likely convince an NFL team to draft him earlier than his college production might indicate. There is always a place in the league for oversized defensive linemen who can occupy multiple blockers, and Geathers certainly has the pedigree to become a longtime NFL performer, with several family members having played in the league.
Weaknesses: Of the draft-eligible juniors who opted to leave Georgia early, perhaps Geathers’ decision was the most questionable. He has never been a regular starter and was an inconsistent performer for much of his career. A team will likely draft him based on potential, but he still has a lot to work on before he becomes an NFL regular.
Comparison: Kade Weston. Much like Geathers, Weston was a massive interior lineman at Georgia several years back. The New England Patriots drafted him in the seventh round of the 2010 draft, but injuries kept him from playing for the team. He spent last season with the Edmonton Eskimos in the CFL.
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.”
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.
The Bulldogs’ veteran defense thoroughly dominated a line that had to replace three NFL draftees at first before offensive line coach Will Friend’s group finally began to make progress. And that process has continued during the regular season, with the line exceeding its coaches' modest expectations as the new lineup continued to grow more comfortable as a group.
“They’ve improved each week and we’ve got to keep going that way,” said Friend, whose players are among the biggest factors in Saturday’s SEC championship matchup with Alabama according to many analysts. “The season’s a long way from over and there’s still another month left, I guess, to keep improving and keep going. So they’ve gotten better, but at the same time we’ve got to be more consistent.”
The low point of the season was certainly Georgia’s 35-7 loss to South Carolina, when defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, in particular, helped whip the Bulldogs up front. That was a painful experience for the line, but it was also a valuable lesson for the group.
“It wasn’t that hard for them to realize what we had to work on and we needed to play better,” Friend said. “We try to be pretty honest with how we think guys played and I feel like they kind of respond better when you tell them the truth and tell them how you feel. So they knew.
“And of course, if you’ve got a good group, they know anyway, so they could tell and they saw what they needed to work on and it was just go back to work. It would have been no different if we would have played better.”
Alabama’s dominant defense is not particularly similar to South Carolina’s in structure, but it is even more effective when it comes to results. The Crimson Tide rank among the national leaders in every major defensive category and represents perhaps the biggest matchup challenge that Friend’s line will have faced this season.
“They’ve got a great defense,” Friend said. “Obviously the stats speak for themselves. When you put the tape on, you see how well they play the techniques and how hard they play and how physical they are. They’re well coached, they’re focused on what they’re doing, they play it just like their coaches want them to play it and they’re very impressive, so it’s a big challenge.”
It should be noted that the media has only picked the correct SEC champion four times since 1992. Those correct picks were Florida in 1994 and 1995, LSU in 2007 and Florida in 2008.
Here are some notes from the league on the All-SEC team:
- The 222 voters is an all-time high for SEC media days. The previous high was 177 voters in 2010.
- South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore was the leading vote-getter this season with 201 of 222 votes. He is the fourth running back in the past six years to be the highest vote-getter (2007 – Darren McFadden, Arkansas; 2008 – Knowshon Moreno, Georgia and Percy Harvin, Florida; 2009 – Tim Tebow and Brandon Spikes, Florida; 2010 – Mark Ingram, Alabama; 2011 – Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina).
In this era of hybrid roles, sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish whether somebody is a defensive end or an outside linebacker. The same goes for that outside linebacker/safety position we’re seeing so much of these days.
1. Georgia: It starts with senior outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who led the SEC in sacks (13.5) and tackles for loss (19.5) last season. Junior Alec Ogletree is just as disruptive on the inside, and the Bulldogs have quality depth inside with seniors Michael Gilliard and Christian Robinson. Senior Cornelius Washington could end up playing some at both end and outside linebacker.
2. Alabama: Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are both gone, but senior Nico Johnson and junior C.J. Mosley return as two of the top linebackers in the SEC. Mosley might be the best coverage linebacker in the league. The Crimson Tide have also recruited like mad, and younger players such as sophomore Jack linebacker Adrian Hubbard are ready to make their move.
3. Florida: Senior Jon Bostic and junior Jelani Jenkins are back to form the nucleus of a Florida defense that should again be one of the top units in the league. They racked up a combined 169 tackles last season. Senior Lerentee McCray missed time with a shoulder injury last season. With Ronald Powell recovering from an ACL tear, McCray factors in at the hybrid Buck position on the outside.
Here are all 19 SEC players on the Nagurski Trophy list:
- Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State
- Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
- Matt Elam, S, Florida
- Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
- John Jenkins, DT, Georgia
- Nico Johnson, LB, Alabama
- Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia
- Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn
- Robert Lester, S, Alabama
- Rob Lohr, DT, Vanderbilt
- Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU
- Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
- Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU
- Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU
- C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
- Eric Reid, S, LSU
- Devin Taylor, DE, South Carolina
- Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama
For the complete Nagurski Trophy watch list, go here.
The SEC also leads the country with 19 players on the 2012 preseason watch list for the Outland Trophy, which is presented annually to the nation's top interior lineman. Alabama leads the SEC with four players on the list, including reigning Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones.
Here are all 19 SEC players on the Outland Trophy watch list:
- Alvin Bailey, OG, Arkansas
- Josh Boyd, DT, Mississippi State
- Chris Faulk, OT, LSU
- Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
- D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
- Alex Hurst, OT, LSU
- Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State
- John Jenkins, DT, Georgia
- Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
- T.J. Johnson, C, South Carolina
- Wesley Johnson, OT, Vanderbilt
- Barrett Jones, C, Alabama
- Bennie Logan, DT, LSU
- Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
- Travis Swanson, C, Arkansas
- Dallas Thomas, OG, Tennessee
- Larry Warford, OG, Kentucky
- Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama
- Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama
For the full Outland Trophy watch list, go here.
We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:
1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.
For Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson, it’s the first thing he notices when he sees youngsters competing in practices. Their speed is always impressive, but the way younger players are dissecting and learning defenses these days has Johnson shocked. It also has defensive coordinators around the league giddy with the thought of not having to simplify things for youngsters.