TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — As Kareem Jackson learned last week, Mike Johnson is a rock.
Johnson was talking to reporters following Thursday’s practice, when the defensive back snuck up behind one of the writers and started making faces at the anchor of Alabama’s offensive line.
A small smile appeared on Johnson’s face, but his concentration never broke.
Coaches and teammates alike can’t say enough about the intangibles Johnson brings to the team as it enters the final week of preseason preparation.
“I can’t recall one occasion in the time we’ve been here that Mike hasn’t been front and center in doing whatever it is we’d like to do as a program — on the field, off the field, in the offseason program in the weight room,” coach Nick Saban said. “So he leads with tremendous example.”
His fatherly demeanor makes himself a prime target for young players to turn to when questions arise.
Redshirt freshman lineman Barrett Jones said he spends extra time in the film room watching Johnson’s practice work after his own.
“He’s just been in the offense so long,” Jones said. “He just does it right so often that I try to emulate his game.
With the highly-publicized departure of three powerful linemen from last season’s team, Johnson’s name quickly emerged as a leader on the rebuilt version of the line. He was chosen as the offensive representative to attend Southeastern Conference Media Days in July, when he was named to the All-SEC team.
In his 40 games at Alabama, Johnson, a senior from Pensacola, Fla., has started 27, including all 14 last season (12 at left guard, two at left tackle). And that streak figures to continue. The depth chart for Saturday’s opener with Virginia Tech hasn’t officially been announced, but Johnson is a lock along with Drew Davis, William Vlachos, James Carpenter and Jones.
Now, the mentor for younger players such as Jones and freshman D.J. Fluker, Johnson remembers Antoine Caldwell was the lineman who took on his cause. Although just a year older, the third-round NFL draft pick known as “loudmouth” within the Crimson Tide program was always the teammate Johnson used as a measuring stick.
“God knows we all miss him around here, man; he was such a personality,” Johnson said. “I talked to him a couple days ago, and he seems to be doing well. He was a guy that I leaned on to help me through some stuff.”
Some of that stuff was learning to block at the college level. The veer option was the offense of choice at Johnson’s Pine Forest High School, so learning the complexities of a major-college scheme had him living in “a whole ’nother world.”
Eventually, he caught on.
And last season, Johnson’s versatility was tested.
When Andre Smith went down with an injury against Tulane and was suspended for the Sugar Bowl, Johnson moved from left guard to left tackle. He is expected to return to left guard full-time this season with Carpenter, a junior college transfer, stepping into the position occupied by Smith, the Outland Trophy winner from last season.
After practicing against what Johnson calls one of the best defenses in the nation, he is looking forward to seeing someone new when the Crimson Tide plays Virginia Tech on Saturday in the Georgia Dome.
Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower lists Johnson as a player he doesn’t like encountering on the practice field.
“I don’t like going against Terrence Cody,” Johnson said. “That’s just a pain and just too much work and too much of a load. And you know what? Dont’e can say that all he wants to, but it is probably even scarier for me to see Dont’e flying at me on a blitz. That ain’t no good right there.”