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October 1, 2010TUSCALOOSA _ University of Alabama sophomore linebacker Nico Johnson had a word to describe being back with the first-team defense last week: "Relief."
It had been a while since his previous start, going back to the Chattanooga game last season when he was filling in for injured Dont'a Hightower at the weakside spot. With so many quality linebackers competing for jobs this fall it was impossible for coaches to find a role for everyone, and Johnson began the season rotating in off the bench and playing special teams.
That is until last week, when Johnson found himself lined up next to Hightower instead of behind him.
"I just had to wait my turn," said Johnson, who said the promotion stemmed from "just doing everything right. Watching a lot of film. Being mistake free I guess."
He responded with eight tackles and a pass broken up. More than that, Johnson may have been an important step in shoring up the run defense, which Nick Saban has not been satisfied with.
"I think it's an area that we need to improve on," the coach said. "We haven't tackled as well."
Although Arkansas wasn't known for its running game prior to Saturday's 24-20 home loss, the Razorbacks were still limited to just 64 rushing yards on 20 carries for a 3.2 average. The performance moved the Crimson Tide up into a tie with Auburn for fourth in SEC rushing defense, averaging 106.5 yards per yards.
Alabama also extended its streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher to 38 games (Oct. 13, 2007, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Ole Miss, 131 yards), which leads the nation and has become a point of pride for the Tide.
"That's one thing that we take personal, that we have to stop the run to do (well) in a game," Johnson said. "That's the one thing that we take to heart, stopping the run."
Overall, Alabama has allowed just 9.8 points per game, and very few long gains on the ground with just three big plays (16 yards or more) and five explosive plays (13 yards or more). The longest gain so far was a 32-yard run around the left end by San Jose State's Brandon Rutley before junior safety Mark Barron could track him down - and combined with safety Robert Lester's face-mask penalty helped set up the Spartans' field goal in the 48-3 victory.
But even though the Tide wasn't giving up points, with Ryan Mallett's 1-yard plunge the lone rushing touchdown, the numbers were heading in the wrong direction. San Joes State had just 89 on 29 carries, but Penn State accumulated 127 and Duke 146, even with defensive end Marcell Dareus returning from a two-game suspension.
So Saban shuffled the linebackers inserting Johnson, sliding junior Jerrell Harris over the strongside and redefining Hightower's roles in passing situations. Things were also simplified among the backups as well, with junior Chris Jordan and freshman C.J. Mosley listed as the only reserves at the interior spots on the depth chart - although Jordan remained a regular part of the dime package.
"We did a little better job against the run," Saban said. "I think some of the issues in pass defense we still need to continue to just be a little more consistent, whether we're playing zone or pattern-match man or man-to-man, everybody being consistent and doing their job, that's not a reflection on Nico, I'm just saying in general from a linebacker standpoint.
"We also moved Dont'a back to where he played most of his career, the money position, and I think he's a little more comfortable there. I think the combination of those two things is what contributed to us playing the run a little bit better."
However, Florida is a much different team from Arkansas when it comes to how it tries to run, which Johnson knows as well as anyone. He's one of the few players fully involved in the game prep for the Gators' offense last year.
"It's faster," he said, "It's faster. I don't see anything different, it's just faster."
The speed on the perimeter is particularly problematic even though the Florida won't be at full strength. Wide receiver Chris Rainey is still not on the team due to off-field issues and running back Jeff Demps has been limited by an ankle injury but probably play Saturday.
"He's an outstanding player," Johnson said about Demps. "He's a great player for them. They've got a lot of speed, and they've had other guys play in his place that have done a very good job as well so I don't think they'll necessarily change what they do, but he is just one outstanding player at what he does. He's a good runner and has great speed on the perimeter, probably the likes of which we have not seen, but I think their entire team does, and they have some other backs that are very capable guys as well."
The ability to go side-to-side will be a huge key for the linebackers, especially with the way Florida will try and stretch the defense with different formations that have become trademark Urban Meyer.
However, the passing game hasn't quite taken hold as expected. While the Gators rank second in scoring offense with 37.8 points per game (trailing only Alabama's 39.5), they're sixth in rushing (169.0 yards) and a surprising tenth in the air (185.5).
Nationally, Florida is 90th out of 120 teams in passing offense, and chances are the Gators won't be airing it out too much Saturday with the Tide ranking fifth in pass-efficiency defense. More likely is that UF will throw just enough to get the defense off-balance and try to get the ball to playmakers like freshman quarterback Trey Burton, who set a team record last week by scoring six touchdowns.
So even if Demps doesn't play, Alabama will have its hands full.
"They're Florida, they have a lot of good player," Johnson said.