Tide tries to find replacement for free safety Johnson

rlee@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 31, 2009 

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama safety Ali Sharrief knows he has big shoes to fill. So big, in fact, it may take two or even three players to fill them.

But that’s what happens when you lose a two-time All-American and three-time All-SEC performer at free safety like Rashad Johnson.

“I want to be one of those people who can make calls like Rashad did and do what Rashad did on Saturdays,” Sharrief said. “I’m trying to be that guy and I want everybody to be the same way.”

While the Alabama defense returns nine starters from its No. 4 nationally ranked defense of a year ago, the loss of Johnson, is significant to the Crimson Tide on many levels.

More so than having to replace his 87 tackles and senior leadership, Alabama will have to find someone who can replicate Johnson’s sense of awareness and overall ball-hawking skills that led to a combined 11 interceptions over the past two seasons for the former walk on from Sulligent, Ala.

“Rashad did all those things,” UA head coach Nick Saban said. “He played the deep part of the field all the time. He was good in sub (nickel or dime formations), in passing downs with his range, ball skills, ball judgement in the deep part of the field.”

The Tide is currently looking at three players to take the spot once occupied by Johnson — Sharrief, sophomore Mark Barron and sophomore Robby Green who moved over from cornerback this spring.

So far through six spring practices, Alabama has shuffled its lineup and administrative groupings in order to find someone who can take over Johnson’s starting position.

“It’s not just finding one guy,” Saban said. “We may find one or two or more players who contribute in various ways that he contributed.”

“We feel like all those guys may develop into some kind of role that we may have. It may not be just one guy.”

Saban described Barron as an “in the box player” in the nickel, meaning another player (perhaps Sharrief, perhaps Green) is responsible for the deep part of the field during sub formations.

Last year the Tide predominantly used five linebackers in third down passing situations (with Eryk Anders at the “Rabbit” or rushing linebacker spot) rather than five defensive backs because Johnson was so adept at covering both parts of the field.

“He (Johnson) was so intelligent,” Sharrief said. “Somewhere, somehow I have to do things like him, the way he talked, the way he called the plays. He could call a play before it happened.”

Sharrief said he, along with the other DB’s, have already been put through various situations and game scenarios as the coaches are trying to figure out who will fit best at the free safety spot.

Sharrief laid out a circumstance in which he would be paired with the second-team while Barron would be paired with the first-team. From there each player would have the responsibility of making the calls and necessary adjustments before the ball is snapped.

They would then, flip spots and do the same thing.

“Everything we’re doing now is very important to get us ready for the fall,” Sharrief said. “The coaches are trying to see what we know and trying to see who is best for the job.”

PRACTICE NOTES

UA linebacker Brandon Fanney missed his sixth consecutive practice on Monday. Fanney has been absent for all of the Tide’s spring practices. There is still no word on when he will return.

Offensive lineman William Vlachos and David Ross continued to take reps at center during offensive lineman drills while wide receiver Earl Alexander and running back Roy Upchurch remained in black, no contact jerseys during Monday’s practice.

The Tide will have today off before its first scrimmage of the spring on Wednesday.

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