Tide adds quality athlete

According to his high school coach, Alabama may have lucked into one of the top football prospects in the state.

Yesterday's Anniston Star reported the news that hometown athlete Eric Johnson would sign with the Tide. Johnson was a late qualifier, which allowed him to slip under the radar of most programs. But the 6-3, 204 pounder (numbers termed "legit" by his high school coach) sports plenty of talent.

"Eric is an aggressive, smart player," Saks High School Head Coach Joe Thornton told BamaMag.com in an interview Thursday afternoon. "He's got a lot of football savvy.

"And he's as good a person as he is a player."

Johnson's father (Eric Sr.) played football for Jacksonville State, while his brother Quinton Caver earned All-SEC honors for Arkansas and now plays football for the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs. "He's got football genes, and you can tell it," Thornton said.

He played both ways last season for Saks, handling the quarterback position on offense where he rushed for right at 700 yards and passed for more than 900. But defense was where he excelled. Playing a combination safety/rover position for Coach Thornton, Johnson totaled an impressive 132 tackles.

Following the season Johnson made the All-County team and was named the Player of the Year by the Anniston Quarterback Club.

Johnson told the Anniston Star that he prefers safety, but he's willing to play anywhere needed at Alabama.

A track star in the spring, Johnson is plenty fast. Thornton says he's timed him at a legitimate 4.56 in the forty, though other sources have the number as low as 4.4. Of course 40-yard dash times are notoriously inaccurate in the recruiting game, but Johnson's speed cannot be questioned.

Saks High School (4-A) won both the 4x100 and 4x400 relays at the Alabama High School Athletic Association's state track meet this past spring. Johnson ran the anchor in both races. Individually he placed sixth (100m) and seventh (200m) in the state.

NOTE: Tide signee Tyrone Prothro won both the 100m and 200m at the state meet.

At the state championships Johnson posted a best time of 11.47 for the 100, but during the year his best time was 11.2. By any measure, he's plenty fast to compete in the SEC. "When we got to Anniston I got him in the weight room, and we just kept working," Thornton related. "Eric just kept getting stronger and faster. When he got onto the track he did even better. Within the space of that one year he grew from 175 to 204 pounds."

A lack of proper direction hindered Johnson the first part of high school. He started at free safety his junior season, but the then slender 175-pounder was told by his previous coach to just lay back and "don't get beat deep." Bothered by a lingering leg injury suffered playing basketball, Johnson couldn't do much work in the weight room. Frankly, the youngster suffered from a coaching deficit before his senior year, which kept him off the various recruiting lists.

Last season's performance helped raise his profile, but a poorly timed test scared off the major programs.

Taking the ACT in the afternoon before his senior prom that night, Johnson scored predictably low. "I knew there was a problem, because he's a very smart kid," Thornton recalled. "Before this summer prom night was the only other time he'd taken the ACT."

Johnson's second score improved to a 20, good enough to qualify him for Division 1A football. "Jacksonville State and Troy State had offered him scholarships, but he always wanted to play in the SEC," Thornton explained. "Coach (Joe) Kines had gotten the word on him earlier and came down to see him in person. He looked at more film and liked what he saw, and the Tide offensive coaches liked Eric as well."

According to Thornton Tide Head Coach Mike Shula offered Johnson a scholarship three weeks ago, contingent on a qualifying score. Once the good news arrived from the testing service, Johnson jumped on Bama's offer.

Johnson's weight-room numbers are impressive for a safety. He bench presses 350 pounds, squats 425 and power cleans 275. The Anniston native can also expect to get even bigger. Johnson won't turn 18 until October of this year.

Johnson joins defensive end Wallace Gilberry of Bay Minette as a late commitment for the Tide. The letter of intent signing period ended back in April, so the two will sign official scholarship papers with the rest of the incoming freshmen when they report for fall camp in August.

Alabama can bring in 18 new scholarshipped athletes this year. Qualifying for several in this year's class is uncertain. If fewer than 18 report this fall, the Tide is expected to sign mid-termers in December to reach 18 and back-count the scholarships against the 2003 numbers.

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