Freshman year is scary for anybody.
Whether you're a regular student or a highly touted five-star recruit coming to play for Nick Saban, not knowing what you're getting yourself into and what exactly is expected out of you can be intimidating. Some take the approach where it's just easier to focus on yourself and keep quiet until comfortable. And that's not a bad thing, as long as the work gets done.
In 2009, Nico Johnson was a five-star prospect out of Andalusia, Ala. that came to Tuscaloosa and saw playing time as a true freshman. Back then Alabama's defense had leaders like Marcell Dareus, Rolando McClain and Terrence Cody, and in years since, guys like Courtney Upshaw, Mark Barron and Dont'a Hightower were the names and faces.
But now Johnson, who stands at 6-foot-4, 245 and has two national titles and a SEC championship under his belt, is a senior and it's his time to lead.
Senior tight end Michael Williams said that he saw a "different Nico" last Saturday at the team's first fall scrimmage.
"He was more amped up," he said. "He was leading the defense, he was leading everybody, actually."
In year's prior, Alabama players and coaches might not have said that about Johnson. Always a strong, reliable and devoted player, but more on the quieter side.
"I think he's always been a little shy about maybe saying something to somebody else because he was so concerned being a perfectionist himself and now, he's got a lot of experience and knowledge," Saban said. "I see him not only doing a good job of setting an example, but also taking responsibility to correct other players and making them aware of the standard that everybody needs to play at so we have a chance to be successful…And I think on defense, especially with the young guys, they really need that."
Sophomore linebacker Xzavier Dickson sees and is learning from the way Johnson leads.
"He tries to get us pumped up for practice everyday," Dickson said. "He tries to motivate us to go hard and take it day by day, practice by practice. He just takes it slow. He knows it's hard. [He tells us] we've just got to practice and fight through it."
Fellow senior leader Barrett Jones has noticed changes in Johnson this preseason as well.
"Nico does a good job of stepping up and being one of those leaders," Jones said. "We knew we'd have to have some this year step up and he's definitely been one of those guys who has done that."
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