TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Walking through the door as an eighth-grader, Josh Chapman had something special. Hoover High School coach Rush Propst never doubted it.
It was just a matter of finding the right place for the still-growing rising talent. Soon, his size, speed and brute power made him a can’t-miss defensive lineman.
More growth. More strength. More of everything eventually made him a hot commodity for the two SEC schools in the state.
Now, Chapman (6-foot-1, 310 pounds) is one game from putting a bow on his five years at Alabama. The raw, young talent that stepped into the suburban Birmingham football machine is on the verge of a pro career. He anchors statistically the best defense in the country and arguably one of the best in Alabama history.
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But entering his Jan. 9 Alabama curtain call in the BCS national title game, Chapman isn’t the decorated centerpiece of this decorated defense. His job is to clog the middle and eat up blockers to spring the All-American linebackers behind him to feast on the opposing backfield.
“He’s not going to woo you in stats with a lot of sacks and all that,” said Propst, a former Eufaula coach now at Colquitt County, Ga. “That’s not what he does. He’s a gap-control, big, strong defensive lineman who holds the point in their defense. And I think it has a lot to do with the success of what they’re doing. Obviously, he has to play well.”
Chapman’s 22 tackles compares well next to the 24 Terrence Cody had through 12 games at nose guard in 2009. Cody rose to icon status in Tuscaloosa before the Baltimore Ravens drafted him in the second round of the 2010 draft.
Though not quite the household name, Chapman aims for a similar future. He has an invitation to the Senior Bowl, played in Mobile every January, and mock drafts project a selection in the first few rounds.
That NFL potential appeared as a high school sophomore in 2004.
Hoover had just won its second straight Alabama Class 6A title, but the entire front seven of the defense graduated.
“We did not have one single player back,” Propst said. “So he was a main part of that success. He only weighed about 225 or 230 pounds. Actually, the game everybody remembers was against Vestavia.”
The Bucs’ arch enemy had a running back named Vincent Harris, who carved the defense for about 170 yards in the first half. Chapman, though, took over after the break to make nine tackles. That slowed Harris, and Hoover won 21-14.
And the Bucs kept winning. The rebuilt defense helped Hoover to a third straight title and a 15-0 record. Chapman won another title as a junior in 2005 before falling to Prattville in the 2006 title game. The structure and passion of the Hoover program was the perfect training ground for the next step.
“The system here to there is kind of the same, just more intense here,” Chapman said. “As a young kid, you don’t want to get up early in the morning. Coach, he had us getting up early in the morning at Hoover, running out to practice, workouts in the summer. Just little things like that get you prepared for this.”
But this almost wasn’t that for Chapman.
He was committed to Auburn for most of his senior season. Though a lifelong Tide fan, the Mike Shula-led program didn’t recruit him while Tommy Tuberville offered a scholarship.
Everything changed when Nick Saban came to town.
“I remember talking to (Saban) in the airport,” Propst said. “He’d been at Alabama a day, and we talked about Josh. And (Saban) said ‘Would he have any interest in changing his mind?’”
Propst’s response: “I don’t know, but you can come in there and see.”
There was no pressure exerted from the inside to play at either school, Propst said. Hoover already had players committed to both programs, and major college coaches were beating the doors down all January 2007.
Chapman recalls the confusing time.
“It was crazy. It was like, ‘God, I don’t know if I want to go here or go there,’” he said. “I was committed to Auburn for a long time. When (Saban) came in, I just felt he was going to start something new, and I wanted to start something new from going from high school up and to see what I could be successful at, and I made the right choice.”
He signed with the Tide next to teammates Kerry Murphy and Patrick Crump while Ryan Pugh inked with Auburn.
“So all the Auburn people got mad at me, obviously,” Propst said. “Really, I brought Josh into the office and said, ‘You have a solid offer, and Auburn has done wellm and they’re on top of the state. You can stay therem or you can listen to what coach Saban has to say.’”
After signing, enrolling and starting practice, Chapman’s ability was clear to Saban.
Chapman played three games in 2007 before earning a medical redshirt. Then Cody transferred in from Gulf Coast Community College.
Playing behind the player once weighing more than 400 pounds, Chapman got a sneak preview of the starting job when Cody went down with an injury in 2008. He started the Tennessee and Arkansas State games to make seven of his 16 total tackles that season.
“There was really no difference in how he played at that position,” Saban said. “And everyone knows that Cody was a pretty good player. Josh has been consistently a good player with what he does for us.”
Cody graduated after the 2009 season, and Chapman stepped into the top job full time. It was a familiar position for the junior since almost the entire front seven was replaced from a championship team.
The 2010 Alabama defense took its lumps in three losses, while still ranking among the best units in the nation.
Now, back on top, linebacker Dont’a Hightower would like to see Chapman credited more often.
“I feel like he’s one of the most underrated defensive linemen in the country,” Hightower said. “Sometimes we get the play in a little late, and he sees the signals and he calls the defense for me. He gets the front set up so I don’t have to set those guys up, then turn around with the secondary and everything. He also does a real good job in giving us run-pass keys.”
For Chapman, it all comes down to this last shot at collegiate glory Jan. 9 in New Orleans.
The rematch against LSU is doubly attractive for Chapman in light of a costly mistake made in the 9-6 loss to the Tigers on Nov. 5 in Tuscaloosa.
Tide safety Mark Barron intercepted a third-quarter pass and was streaking to the end zone, but Chapman was flagged for an illegal block on the play ending inside the LSU 5 yard-line. The following possession started at the 29 instead, resulting in a field goal. Alabama never got so close to the goal line as it would have been without the penalty.
His high school coach said that will make a difference this time around.
“He felt like he let the team down,” Propst said. “But I think you’ll see him play possibly his best game ever.”