There are plenty of major college football players that have the dream of playing in the NFL. Alabama safety Rashad Johnson also has that dream, he just didn't think he'd make it as a safety.
Lightly recruited out of high school with the Citadel and a couple of Division II programs the only schools that actively pursued him, Johnson went with his heart instead of his head choosing to walk on at Alabama.
"I came out of high school and I didn't get any offers by any big schools," said Johnson. "I was always an Alabama fan, and I wanted to go there and play. I went to my mom and my dad and I told them the dream that I had. They said that they would sacrifice and let me go in and chase that dream. I went in with a mindset of I'm coming in here to play; I'm doing whatever I can to help and contribute to the team."
Joining the Crimson Tide as a running back Johnson was buried on the depth chart with few positive signs that he'd get on the field on offense. When you're running seventh string things can look bleak.
"I was down the line," said Johnson. "It was probably about seventh (string), if not eighth. It was tough. There was a time there we had some guys injured and I was moving up the depth chart and getting an opportunity to show what I could do in the spring and then the fall came around and we had signed four running backs. There were a lot of great players, and I got moved back down the depth chart. It was a tough time."
Serving mainly on special teams however, proved to be a blessing as the coaching staff thought a lot of his coverage teams play, prompting them to suggest a switch to the other side of the ball.
"They saw that I could tackle and play and my role just became bigger because we had some great safeties that ended up leaving, Roman Harper and Charlie [Peprah], and nobody behind them had any playing experience," he said. "They came to me and let me know that I had an opportunity to play there if I wanted to make the move, and I made the move from running back to safety and it's
just been all uphill from there."
Johnson's sophomore season was a transition year at safety, but by 2007 his teammates were so impressed with his play and leadership he became one of the few players named a team captain as a junior.
"It was a tremendous honor that I was voted as a captain because juniors weren't even on the nomination list," said Johnson. "It was a list full of seniors. We're sitting in the meeting room and a guy stands up and tells coach that he
wants my name to be put on there. It felt great. I was really, really
honored that my teammates thought that way about me. Then to get it again
this year it made me feel even better. It makes me feel like the hard work
I put in it didn't go unnoticed."
Johnson flourished in 2007 with 94 total tackles to lead the team and six interceptions, tied for best in the SEC.
As a senior Johnson's football IQ was on full display as he was the signal caller in Nick Saban's complex 3-4 defense from the free safety position. It's earned him high marks among the NFL talent evaluators, knowing the Crimson Tide defense was one of the best in the country.
"His system is very complicated," said Johnson of Saban. "But at the same time when you learn it and get the details of it, it helps you in being a playmaker because it gives you an opportunity to put yourself in position. You make the calls out there on the field. You put yourself in what you think is the best possible coverage to play, and it allows you to be your own coach and your own leader on the field."
Johnson finished his senior campaign with 82 tackles, good for second on the team with five interceptions, helping him earn first team All-SEC honors. He was also named SEC Defensive Player of the Year by the Little Rock Touchdown Club.
The knocks on Johnson are that he was not strong enough to handle the action down in the box as a strong safety. Playing his senior year at 185 pounds the film exposed his skinny build. But reporting to the NFL combine at 205 pounds and running a 4.49 40-time and putting up a 37-inch vertical helped his cause in a big way.
Widely considered one of the top three free safeties in the class, Johnson could come off the board anywhere in the late second to early third round. And he largely has his head coach to thank.
"The coaches in the NFL respect coach Saban," said Johnson. "They respect his opinion. I think for me to be able to play under him and produce the way I did and be able to learn his system and be a leader back there I think it only just adds to the positives for me. Then for him to be able to vouch for me, 'This guy can play at the next level.' I think that's only going to help me.