Footsteps

Darwin Holt on Nico Johnson

“It’s that desire to do the extra that makes him such an exceptional player”
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Photo courtesy of Jim Dunnavant.
During his junior season, Johnson was in on 43 tackles, including one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

No Alabama defender ever pursued ball carriers with more fire than Darwin Holt.

Even for the times, he was a small linebacker, standing just 5-foot-9 and weighing just 167 pounds, but when the ball was snapped, Holt played like a giant, attacking at full speed and delivering thunderous licks.

In 1961, Holt was a key figure on a punishing Alabama defense that allowed just 25 points in 11 games, staking a claim as one of the greatest units ever to play the game while helping the Crimson Tide capture Paul “Bear“ Bryant’s first national championship.

So listen closely when Holt, one of the best linebackers in Bama history, speaks admiringly of Nico Johnson, one of the latest men to follow in his footsteps.

“He’s a tremendous athlete and a natural linebacker,” said Holt, a long-time insurance salesman who lives in Birmingham. “I expect this [2012] to be his break-out year.”

During Alabama’s run to the 2011 national championship, as yet another dominating defense led the way, most of the attention flowed to All-Americans Dont’a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Dre Kirkpatrick and Mark Barron. But Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 245-pound native of Andalusia, Ala., slowly became a force worthy of mounting attention, contributing many big stops on the way to the crystal trophy.

Three times last season, Johnson earned Defensive Player of the Week from the coaching staff: Against Ole Miss, he made two tackles for loss and a sack. Against Tennessee, he forced a fumble and deflected a pass into the hands of Hightower. Against LSU, he recorded a career-best 11 tackles.

Firmly established as Alabama’s starting Will linebacker as the Crimson Tide adjusts to the loss of four key players, Johnson enters his senior season amid great expectations.

While praising his quick hands and the forearms that “keep blockers away from his body,” Holt said, “He seems to have that sixth sense that so many of the good ones have: Somehow, he manages to wind up around the ball. He sees the whole offense as one big picture and can read where the ball is going after the offense takes the first step. He reads his lanes very well.”

Case in point: The tipped pass against Tennessee.

“He had to be in the right place at the right time [to make that play]. You can’t coach that.”

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