VU's persistence rewarded with Ala. linebacker

While other schools were cooling their jets on Birmingham (Ala.) Oak Mountain linebacker <B>Chris Johnson</b> due to an unfortunate injury, the Commodores' interest remained steadfast. The relatively unknown, 6-2, 215-pounder rewarded Vanderbilt's persistence Sunday with a commitment; here, he talks about his injury and recent decision.

In his junior season with Birmingham's Oak Mountain High School, Chris Johnson was a force to be reckoned with. After he registered 92 tackles from his linebacker position, the post-season honors came pouring in -- as did the attention from colleges.

But Johnson suffered an unfortunate foot fracture the summer before his senior season. The break required the insertion of screws into his heel, and he was forced to miss the first three-and-a-half games. When he did return, he was asked to move to defensive end, and was not used at all on offense. The surgery took away some of his quickness and mobility, and even by season's end Johnson wasn't 100 percent.

It soon became obvious here would be no eye-popping stats this season, no post-season honors. As Coach Jerry Hood's Eagles struggled to a 4-6 record in Johnson's senior season, many of the colleges that before had sought him backed off. To recruiting gurus -- including those at Scout.com -- Johnson's name dropped off the radar.

One school, however, quietly maintained its interest. Offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell, who recruits the Birmingham area for Vanderbilt, had seen enough while scouting Johnson in the spring to know he had the potential to be an outstanding college-level linebacker. While other schools were cooling their jets, the Commodores' interest remained steadfast.

Johnson rewarded Vanderbilt's persistence Sunday with a verbal commitment. The 6-2 215-pounder had traveled to Nashville for an official visit without the assurance of a scholarship offer, but the offer was extended and immediately accepted during his one-on-one meeting with Coach Bobby Johnson Sunday morning.

"Vanderbilt had contacted me back in the spring before I got hurt," Johnson said. "Coach Caldwell pretty much stayed with me, even though I had my injury. They've been pretty much my top team."

But as it turns out, even Vanderbilt expressed understandable wariness over whether Johnson's fracture would heal completely (no school wants to spend a scholarship on a player that will never play). A few days before his official visit, the Commodore staff asked him to drive to Nashville, at his own expense, and have the foot examined by the school's trainers. Luckily, everything checked out OK.

"My foot feels a lot better now," he said. "During the season I struggled with it, but the screws have been taken out now. It's getting better."

Meanwhile, when Johnson came back a second time for his official visit, everything about Vanderbilt was to his liking. Jonathan Goff, a second-year linebacker for the Commodores, was his host.

"Everything was very nice," Johnson said. "The coaches are all great coaches. Everything was perfect. It was where I really wanted to go, so I was excited."

Academically, Johnson fits the Vandy profile almost to a 'T', with a 3.93 GPA and a 28 ACT score. And with his 4.6 speed in the 40-yard dash, he also hopes to make a contribution right away to the Commodore defensive front seven. In high school he played both inside and outside, and could be used at either position in college.

"I've learned how to get to the ball carrier well, and get off the block," Johnson said. "I've had some great coaching in high school."

Vanderbilt's two other linebacker commitments to date are Quavian Lewis (Troy, Ala.) and Brandon Bryant (Cincinnati, Ohio). The staff is still expected to try to secure a fourth linebacker, and among the top targets are Ben Owens (Bearden, Ark.), Antonio Jones (Dallas, Tex.), Artis Warthen (Miramar, Fla.) and J.T. McCoy (Fayetteville, N.C.).


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