Jimmy Johns is correct when he insists "I'm a running back, not a quarterback." But when Alabama lost back-up quarterback Jimmy Barnes to a knee injury in pre-bowl practice, the Crimson Tide was left with only starter John Parker Wilson as a scholarshipped quarterback. Thus attention turned to Johns, a quarterback when he was Mr. Football at Brookhaven High School in Mississippi in 2004.
Johns was moved to halfback almost the day he arrived in Tuscaloosa and saw back-up duty to Kenneth Darby the past two years. And he has seen a handful of snaps as a quarterback.
Following a practice this week, Johns was asked about his preparation time at quarterback. He was far more emphatic in denial than, say, Miami Dolphins Coach Nick Saban has been in denying the possibility of him becoming Bama's coach.
Joe Kines, Alabama's interim head coach, said that Trent Dean, a walk-on sophomore defensive back from Decatur who has been a scout team quarterback at Bama, is the back-up quarterback for the Independence Bowl. But, Kines added, "We'll have a couple of things prepared for an emergency."
The emergency would be Wilson being unable to play against Oklahoma State in Shreveport. Bama and the Cowboys will meet at 3 p.m. CST Thursday, December 28, with ESPN handling the telecast.
Johns has been taking a few snaps a week at quarterback for most of the past couple of years, including during bowl preparation. In most games during the year he would have at least one play where he was the quarterback, though usually in spread (shotgun) formation, not under center. In truth, his plays from under center have mostly been misfires.
Johns, 6-2, 227, was effective running the football the past two years. As a true freshman last year he had 38 carries for 202 yards, a 5.3 yards per carry average. This season he has run 59 times for 254 yards, 4.3 yards per carry.
Johns points out that he is also a regular on special teams. "Running back and special teams," he said. "John Parker is our leader and our quarterback. We had several games this year where he played every snap at quarterback, where we didn't use a back-up. He's a warrior. I look for John Parker to take all the snaps.
"He's a great player and a great quarterback and he's getting better every day."
Pressed on the matter, Johns will concede that he has been a quarterback in the past and that he does get some work. But he insists the quarterback role has not been expanded for him. "We've had plays in for me all year, so it's the same. It's the same package, same everything we've had all year."
In early bowl practices Johns had a cast on his right (throwing) hand. He said he had some ligament damage in his wrist. He also said he is "trying to fight through it," practicing without the cast now, and said he did not think it would affect his throwing.
Johns said he thinks he's better suited to running back. "I'm an aggressive player, and you have to be aggressive at tailback," he said. "At quarterback, you have to hold back some, not being as aggressive."
"But I'm focused on Oklahoma State, not playing quarterback," he said. He said the Cowboys are "a big defense; not as fast as an SEC defense maybe, but big and sound. Sort of like us, they've lost a lot of close games. I think it's going to be a fun game."
Johns said he's not looking to play quarterback anytime soon. He's not even looking ahead to next fall, when Darby will be gone. Although Johns was the back-up tailback this year, he points to Glen Coffee, Roy Upchurch and Terry Grant returning from injuries that sidelined them in 2006, as well as the Ali Sharrief being in the mix.
There has been talk that Alabama might revert to more of a running team, attempting to control the football, against Oklahoma State. "I hope that's right," Johns said. "There's nothing more exciting for a running back than getting the ball and then getting one-on-one with a defender."
Johns should know. After all, he is a running back.