INDIANAPOLIS – Lost in the shuffle of Alabama linebackers over the past four years is Nico Johnson.
There was Johnson filling in as a true freshman for injured inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower in helping the Crimson Tide to the 2009 National Championship.
Johnson earned freshman All-America honors that year while playing alongside the No. 8 pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Rolando McClain.
The next two seasons, Johnson would rotate with the talented linebacker corps, starting a total of 13 games before fellow linebackers Hightower (the No. 25th pick in the 2011 draft) and Courtney Upshaw (the No. 35th pick in the 2011 draft) departed following the 2011 National Championship.
The accolades do not pour in for Johnson compared to the three mentioned above, but there he was once again this fall, amidst an injury-ridden defense, playing in all 13 games.
“Before the SEC Championship, we were beat up. We were beat up bad,” Johnson said. “We were beat up that Texas A&M week and we lost. Going through that taught us a lesson. No matter how bad we feel, we still got to go and perform our best.
“We went out and tried to perform our best and push through that game. After that, everybody kind of got healthier and went out in the national championship game and did our best.”
Johnson was one of those players fighting through injuries after suffering a hernia injury in Alabama’s comeback victory over LSU on November 3.
In electing to play through the pain, Johnson joined Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones as the only Crimson Tide players to start on all three National Championship teams over the past four years.
Following the National Championship, Johnson was a full participant during the Senior Bowl but on the advice of NFL scouts, he opted for surgery following the week in Mobile.
Rehab for Johnson forced him to miss the physical part of the NFL Combine. While he was ready for his pro day on March 13, the combine was for mental reps.
“Meeting a lot of people, getting the teams and owners and GMs, getting them to know me better,” Johnson said of what the combine afforded. “At the same time, watching the drills (helped) me out even more to understand when I go to Pro Day.”
While Johnson was nursing his hernia injury during the final stretch of the 2012 season, he turned to his idol, a player who happened to be dealing with a similar problem.
Since Johnson can remember, he has looked up to former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.
This past year Lewis fought back from a shoulder injury and went out a champion, while Johnson leaves Tuscaloosa as one of the most decorated Alabama players ever.
“Before every game on Saturday, that Friday night I watch a lot of (Lewis’) speeches that he gives to his team, or whoever he's giving a speech to remind myself how important it is to take advantage of opportunities,” Johnson said.
“I just (pattern) myself after him, his game, the way he brings his passion and energy and the way he’s able to affect his other teammates and get them to rise to the occasion when their best is needed.”
Johnson certainly rose to his collegiate occasion. Along with three National Championships, his 2012 senior class won a school-record 49 games, losing but five times. The four-year victory total is the best in SEC history and ties the total of the 1997 Nebraska senior class that went 49-2 and also won three national championships.
LOOKING AT THE 2013 NFL DRAFT'S INSIDE LINEBACKERS
THE LAST FIVE
The last five inside linebackers drafted by the Colts:
2005: Tyjuan Hagler, fifth round, Cincinnati
2004: Gilbert Gardner, third round, Purdue
2004: Kendyll Pope, fourth round, Florida State
2000: Rob Morris, first round, Brigham Young
THIS YEAR'S DRAFT
An alphabetical list of inside linebackers expected to be selected in the 2013 NFL Draft (*-denotes underclassman):
Steve Beauharnais, Rutgers
Jonathan Bostic, Florida
Nico Johnson, Alabama
Kevin Minter*, LSU
Alec Ogletree*, Georgia
Kevin Reddick, North Carolina
Manti Te’o, Notre Dame
Note: The content in this story and in the series of draft-eligible players that appears on Colts.com in no way reflects the position of the Indianapolis Colts.