MOBILE — After winning back-to-back national championships, Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson said the next step is to get into shape.
As strange as that sounds, a lot of players have worked diligently for more than a month to lower their 40-yard dash times and work on agility drills that can impress professional scouts and general managers at all-star games or the NFL Combine.
Johnson, meanwhile, was working on a defensive scheme to defeat Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game.
“We (fellow Tide all-star players) felt like playing in the national championship game, we were a step behind everyone else, so we’ve got to catch up,” Johnson said. “During the season, we really don’t have time to work on the 40. Drills? That’ll be there but we don’t have time to work on the 40 and flexing and things we need on down the line.
“We’re just going to work on little things like that and try to get bigger, faster and stronger.”
Johnson has been on the practice field a lot this week for the South squad, showing the scouts and his coaches from the Detroit Lions that he can be a force in the middle in the NFL.
If a team playing a 3-4 alignment drafts Johnson, he’ll fit right in.
But the majority of teams play a 4-3 and the 6-foot-2, 249-pound Andalusia native has to convince scouts for that scheme that he can play middle linebacker on every down after spending much of the 2012 season coming out on passing downs in favor of teammate C.J. Mosley.
“It’s not that much difference but you have a gap here that the coaches let you run through,” he said. “There, coach (Nick) Saban made us ‘stack’ more and play both sides. If one side held up and the other gap was open, we would play that. That’s pretty much the only difference. It’s the same terminology, the same everything at ‘Bama that is here with the Lions. It was set up for me and (teammate) Robert (Lester).”
And while coaches wanted to see his ability to drop into coverage — he rewarded them in Thursday drills with an interception — he didn’t single out any concerns heading into this week’s practice.
“There’s really nothing different as far as ‘Bama practice and this practice,” Johnson said. “Some little things in the rotation are different, but the tempo, the work ethic and the drills are almost the same. It’s just coming out here and trying to do it a little bit better. I wanted to come down here and show I could play in space and pass coverage better and I think I did a better job than what people thought I would do.
“Being around coach Saban for four years, I kind of turned into a perfectionist myself so in my mind I have to improve on everything – stopping the run, the right footsteps, the right hand placement. No matter how good things go for me, I feel like I have to improve on everything.”
He tried to get in touch with former teammate Courtney Upshaw about what to expect at the Senior Bowl and will get in touch later about the upcoming draft, but the Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker is busy preparing for the upcoming Super Bowl. Johnson will be intently watching, not only because of his friend from Eufaula but also because he has always patterned his game after Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
“Ever since I’ve known of him, I’ve watched him for the way he brings passion and emotion to the game and the way he’s able to affect players,” Johnson said. “I want to have that same passion and be able to affect my teammates to hold themselves to a standard and hold themselves accountable to do their job.
“Every Friday before a game, I like to go on the Internet and watch the speeches he gives his team. Most of the time, it motivates me to go out and do my best.”
That’s the attitude he plans on taking for Saturday’s Senior Bowl. After a month of grueling preseason workouts, followed by 13 weeks of regular season football, the Southeastern Conference Championship Game and the BCS National Championship Game, Johnson still has a smile on his face as he prepares for yet another game.
“If guys don’t love the game, I don’t know why they’re here,” he said. “If you don’t have a passion and a love for the game, you shouldn’t be here.”
Then, on Sunday, it’s back to training. As if the last six months didn’t prepare him for anything, Johnson will go to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., which has trained, among others, Cam Newton, Ryan Tannehill, Josh Freeman, Russell Wilson and Randall Cobb in the past and is currently helping Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o prepare for the draft.
“I’m going to go train and try to get faster and stronger,” Johnson said.
A perfectionist’s work is never done.