Nico Finds Comfort Zone On Defense

A word that would seem unlikely to fit for a player in a Nick Saban defense would be "comfortable." But Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson said that he is more comfortable. Well, "more comfortable than I used to be."

Nico Johnson, a 6-3, 245-pound inside linebacker from Andalusia, has seemed a good fit for the Alabama defense since arriving prior to the 2009 season. Johnson played in 12 games for the undefeated Crimson Tide in 2009, including starting three games for the national champions. Last year he played in every game and started six in Bama's 10-3 season.

Last Saturday Bama had its first scrimmage of spring practice and Johnson was one of the defensive leaders with five tackles, including a tackle for loss. But it wasn't a good day to be a defensive player. Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban had much praise for the offense and expressed disappointment in the defense, specifically the tackling by the defense, following the scrimmage at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Still, Johnson said before the scrimmage, that compared to his first spring practice a year ago, he has a much better idea of "what's going on. The year before last, we had Rolando (McClain), and he knew everything. Now I think everybody knows what's going on; everybody is in tune to everything. And we're excited about everything. We're learning each day and we're having fun.

"We're not worrying about the little things, mistakes; not letting them get to us.

"We're just rolling now."

Johnson said that he was familiar with the base defense a year ago. Now, he said, "I'm more comfortable with the whole defense – the nickel and dime, and not just the base."

Still, Johnson said, "Even though I'm way more comfortable than I was (in the spring) after my freshman year, I've still got to learn a lot more. There's always room to improve in every aspect of our defense. But I feel way more comfortable than I did."

Johnson ranked ninth in tackles for Bama last year with 33 stops, 22 of them primary tackles. He had three tackles for loss, a pass deflection, a quarterback hurry, and one pass interception, picking off a Florida pass in the end zone. He has 60 career tackles with eight tackles for loss and one sack.

Johnson said being more familiar with the defense enables him to play faster. "I didn't play as fast as I thought I should last year," he said. "Watching film (this spring), the thing that stands out is I'm playing faster. That probably comes from being more comfortable, more relaxed, and that comes from knowing the defense better."

Among the players Johnson thinks have shown a lot of improvement are two defensive players who were injured much of last year, inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower and outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw.

"I don't think people have seen the best Dont'a Hightower, the best Courtney," Johnson said. "It's exciting to play next to them. I'm just ready to see what they're able to bring to the table."

Johnson also has seen something from a true freshman. He said Trey DePriest is "catching on. He's always flying around, always intense."

The linebacker also sees good things on the other side of the line where he listed Trent Richardson, Jalston Fowler, Eddie Lacy, Demetrius Goode, and true freshman Demetrius Hart as improving. Johnson also said "both quarterbacks (A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims) are looking good. Who knows who's going to be the quarterback. They're practicing hard, doing the right stuff."

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