LB prospect brings run-stuffing résumé

The Vikings could be in the market for a middle linebacker if they don't come to terms with Jasper Brinkley, and there was a run-stuffing linebacker looking pro-ready at the Senior Bowl. Nico Johnson talked about his experience, the perceived limitations on him, and his NFL idol.

With Jasper Brinkley scheduled to be become a free agent, the Vikings at least have to consider the replacement possibilities at middle linebacker.

At the Senior Bowl in January, Nico Johnson was a player similar to Brinkley's skill set – hard-hitting, experienced in a professional-like scheme, but perhaps limited to being a two-down player because of pass-coverage deficiencies. Johnson didn't get much of a chance to show his coverage skills as Alabama's middle linebacker.

"That's the only thing that's bad about the way we did it at 'Bama. You had players here and there and we rotated a lot," Johnson said. "Some players may seem like they can't cover. People thought I can't cover or they thought C.J. (Mosely) couldn't play the run right, so we split that time. This is a great opportunity to show I can do those things. Whatever happens, happens. I'm going to take it with full respect."

Johnson showed he could diagnose a play and hit during the Senior Bowl. Toward the end of one practice, he stopped Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor in his tracks and helped stop a screen after showing decent range and quickness. But Johnson knows his range will be what coaches are looking at most.

Fortunately for him, he has a respected college coach in his corner. Alabama coach Nick Saban attended some of the Senior Bowl practices and was speaking to the strengths of his Crimson tide alumni.

"It is (nice to have that support), especially having the success he's had and what we've done at Bama," Johnson said of Saban. "They speak highly of coach and respect him very well. To have him say some things that could go our way means a lot. We've still got to go out and perform. We've still got to do our job."

The tape from Johnson's time at Alabama will tell scouts the most, and what they will see is limited snaps at times, depending on the team Alabama was facing. Facing a spread offense meant fewer snaps for Johnson, who said his low snap count came against Texas A&M, when he was only in for five defensive plays. The most action he had was about 50 snaps, he figured, against strong running teams.

Johnson said he and Mosely would tease each other as they rotated according to the offense's tendencies.

"He'd pick on me sometimes about: ‘Now it's time for the fast guys to cover.' Other than that, it's just all fun. We all respect each other and we understand we have a role on the team and we just took advantage of it," Johnson said.

Johnson finished his senior year with 55 tackles and it was clear at the Senior Bowl the passion he has for stopping the run, calling it "a warrior mentality."

"That you will not be denied of what you want – you have to have that mindset, especially as a linebacker, of being a little bit crazy," he said. "Playing teams like LSU, Tennessee, all those powerhouse running teams, your mindset has got to be right. If it's not, you're not going to be on the field. The mindset is just locked in, focused in, knowing that you've got to stop the run but the pass is there, too. You've got to have a warrior mentality."

It should come as no surprise, then, that Johnson has a lot of respect for Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. He has watched Lewis since childhood and spoke in depth about his respect for the Ravens' emotional leader.

"I've been following Ray Lewis since I was like 8 or 9. He is really the player that I idolized myself after. I watched every video before every game on Fridays and motivational speeches from him. He has made an effect on my life whether he knew it or not. To watch the Ravens play the way that they do is something special to me," Johnson said.

"His passion that he brings to the game, his emotion that he's bringing and he's able to control that, and his leadership, where he's able to affect so many people and go out and they respond in the right way. When Ray came back, that team was a different team. Just sitting there watching the last couple weeks when he wasn't there, they were there but the passion and the energy and the focus wasn't there like when he's on the field. Now that he is, they're going to the Super Bowl."

While Johnson has proved to be an effective run stopper, the coverage questions will continue to dog him and it's the reason he isn't expected to be drafted until the middle rounds. Still, he doesn't believe he needs to do anything with his weight (he is 249 pounds) to improve his draft stock.

One advantage he has is how well-versed he is in different defenses. He said the Crimson Tide would play versions of both the 3-4 and 4-3 defense, even if it didn't look like it.

"Being able to play under Coach Saban for four years … the defense we're running (at the Senior Bowl) is kind of similar to ours so we were stuck making calls that were similar to Coach Saban. But being under him made this process here so easy."


Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.



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Toward the end of one practice, he stopped Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor in his tracks and helped stop a screen after showing decent range and quickness. But Johnson knows his range will be what coaches are looking at most. Fortunately for him, he has a respected college coach in his corner. Alabama coach Nick Saban attended some of the Senior Bowl practices and was speaking to the strengths of his Crimson tide alumni. \"It is (nice to have that support), especially having the success he's had and what we've done at Bama,\" Johnson said of Saban. \"They speak highly of coach and respect him very well. To have him say some things that could go our way means a lot. We've still got to go out and perform. We've still got to do our job.\" The tape from Johnson's time at Alabama will tell scouts the most, and what they will see is limited snaps at times, depending on the team Alabama was facing. 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