TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The Alabama football program Mike Johnson entered as a freshman in 2006 hardly resembles the one he’ll exit at year’s end.
Staggered and stumbling for a decade’s worth of swings and misses, the Crimson Tide of generations’ past was dormant. Losses at home were no longer an oddity.
The pendulum, however, swung back in Alabama’s favor just in time for the final home game for Johnson and 25 other seniors at 12:21 p.m. today against Tennessee-Chattanooga. They haven’t lost in Bryant-Denny Stadium, or any regular-season venue, since all were sophomores.
The survivors of the incoming class of 2005 and 2006 have seen plenty defections, arrests, and former teammates kicked out of the program since arriving in Tuscaloosa during the Mike Shula era. Of the 56 who made up the two recruiting classes, 10 are starters. Among those who made it through the meat grinder is quarterback Greg McElroy, who is a junior because of a redshirt season.
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“We’ve lost a lot of our class along the way,” Johnson said. “People have had to go other directions. Just thankful for the guys that I’ve come up here with and been through this with. I couldn’t be happier with where I’m leaving the program and where this place stands.”
Of the 26 seniors, 11 already earned undergraduate degrees before the season, with juniors McElroy and Travis Sikes being the other two.
Coach Nick Saban had a hard time singling out seniors who exemplify the perseverance needed to make it to this finale.
“I would say, we’re not disappointed in any of them,” Saban said.
Unlike the past several top-ranked recruiting classes to come through the program, the groups from 2005 and 2006 had fewer stars next to their name on recruiting Web sites.
Starting linebacker Eryk Anders, who is enjoying a breakout season this fall, was a one-star prospect according to scout.com. Other starters, including Johnson and Cory Reamer, were two-star recruits.
“Cory Reamer is a guy who has improved enormously, changed positions, played inside backer, outside backer, was a defensive back, is probably the biggest contributor on special teams,” Saban said. “He’s a good leader; he affects other people; it’s really important to him; he puts his heart and soul into it and does everything in terms of what I said before about taking ownership for what he’s supposed to do.”
All three members of the defensive line are moving on, with ends Lorenzo Washington and Brandon Deaderick arriving in 2005. Nose guard Terrence Cody was a junior college transfer who came to Alabama before the 2008 season.
Safeties Justin Woodall and Marquis Johnson took different routes to their starting jobs. Woodall’s arrival in Tuscaloosa meant turning down a contract to play with the New York Mets, and Johnson dealt with plenty of doubters before turning into one of the Tide’s best pass defenders.
“I think back to when (Johnson) was a sophomore and we were playing Florida State, and you all were saying, ‘Don’t you have anybody else you could put in there?’ ” Saban said. “We believed in the guy and worked with him, and he worked really hard himself and has become a really good player who is very confident in what he is doing.”
Johnson now leads the conference with 1.5 passes defended per game, ranking him third nationally.
Now that it’s almost over, Arenas admits he has thought about the finality.
“Yeah, I have,” he said. “I’m trying to make it one to remember, just effort-wise and playing the best that I can. See what the results are. Hopefully, it’ll be an astounding performance by me and my teammates. But I’m just trying to make it one to remember.”