"When I first got here I didn't appreciate his athleticism as much as I did his work habits," Tide Defensive Coordinator Carl Torbush admitted. "But after seeing him this spring, I know he's a good athlete. There isn't any doubt about that. His speed is better. His quickness is very good.
"He is an athlete."
Probably more than any position on the football team other than quarterback, defensive linemen capable of dominating the line of scrimmage are at a premium. Johnson described the prototype. "If he played defensive end, I'd make him 6-5, 6-6 and about 275 pounds with long arms. You move inside to defensive tackle and they can be a little bit shorter. Around 6-3 or 6-4 and 290 is ideal.
"If you take that frame and you get to where he's that quick in five yards, to where he can change directions and can see things, then you've got a defensive lineman. You can have a big guy that's fast, but if he's not quick, if he can't use his hands and he can't see things, then he can't play."
Johnson arrived on campus as a defensive end, but since then he has moved inside where he now excels. "I think I'm pretty balanced," he said. "I can play both pass and rush pretty well. Probably my strength is just being always around the ball."
Standing slightly taller than 6-2 and weighing in at 285 pounds or so, by his own criteria Johnson is undersized for defensive tackle. So he's used to being left off the various pre-season all-star lists. But Johnson's on-the-field play last season could not be overlooked, as the Associated Press named him first-team All-SEC.
"If you look at his statistics, he could go down as the second-leading sack man in Alabama history," Torbush said. "You wouldn't necessarily expect him to have that many (sacks), but he's always there."
A relentless pass rusher, being "always there" helped Johnson accumulate nine quarterback sacks last season, raising his career total to 18. Just four more will push him beyond Eric Curry's 22.5, which currently stands second on the Bama all-time list. Of course Derrick Thomas' career total of 52 is a record that may never be approached.
Johnson also had ten quarterback pressures and a pair of forced fumbles as a junior, and his 14 stops behind the line of scrimmage led the Tide in that category. Torbush commented, "I think Jarret is a perfect example of a playmaker on defense.
"When I first got here I watched him in the off season. I thought he was a guy that worked very hard. But I wasn't sure about how athletically talented he was. But beyond his ‘want to' and playing hard, he is a good athlete. He's got a chance to be a high-round draft choice next year--if he stays healthy and has the type year he should."
Add in Kindal Moorehead and Kenny King, and Alabama will have three returning senior starters on its defensive line. "Experience is a key in anything, especially with football and especially on the defensive line," said D-Line Coach Stan Eggen. "When you have seniors and guys that have played since they've been freshmen in the Southeastern Conference in championship games, it's invaluable."
Looking just at his physical attributes, it's hard to explain what Johnson has accomplished on the football field. Besides his relentless effort, Torbush praises his ability to play "underneath his pads."
"That's leverage," Johnson explained. "Whoever is lower, whoever is under the other guy, then he's the one that's pushing up. He's the one that will drive the other guy backwards and get separation. If the offensive guy gets under you, then he'll get the leverage and push you backward into the hole.
"You've got to get your pads low."
But beyond his good technique and competitive fire, Johnson contributes another invaluable attribute to this Alabama team. Winning football squads are composed of more than just talented players. When tough times hit--as they always do--that's when experienced leaders step forward.
Though 2001 ended on a positive note, the season brought more than its share of tough times. And Torbush spotted something special in his defensive tackle. Torbush explained. "I watched that closely, because I wanted to develop leaders within the group. If a guy is whining and pointing fingers, then that's not the kind of leader that I want to be associated with.
"I didn't see that. I saw a guy that tried to pull everybody closer together."