Skip to main content
The Saban Top 100: No. 91-95

The Saban Top 100: No. 91-95

Publish date:

The Saban Top 100: Ranking the Best Alabama Players of the Nick Saban Era, No. 91-95

BamaCentral is ranking the top 100 players of the Nick Saban era at Alabama over the course of the 2020 football season

91] Nico Johnson, LB

  • Fourth-round selection in 2013 NFL Draft
  • Had starts all four years, 20 total. Played in 51 games
  • Had a career-high 54 tackles as a senior, including 16.5 tackles for a loss, and had two forced fumbles

It was a key moment of Alabama’s 2009 season that’s frequently overlooked, but could have easily meant the difference between winning the Southeastern Conference and national championships or falling well short.

When starting weakside linebacker Dont’a Hightower was lost for his sophomore season with a major knee injury sustained against Arkansas, coaches had to make a decision about who would best fill the void despite the obvious risk of the player being overwhelmed. Granted, the Crimson Tide had eventual Butkus Award winner Rolando McClain in the middle, but if the one next to him was a liability there could have been a huge hole in the heart of the Alabama defense.

The person they turned to was Nico Johnson, who was still getting accustomed to campus life and had only taken a few snaps against Florida International and North Texas. Accelerating his learning curve became a priority so when Alabama reached the meat of its league schedule he could be a critical cog against the run.

“It's an NFL-style defense, and as a freshman not really knowing what's expected it was kind of tough,” Johnson said. “Then just having Dont'a and Rolando there kind of helped me out, though.”

That was the beginning of an illustrious career on the Capstone, where Johnson developed from being a Parade All-American and finalist for the first high school Butkus Award, into a bona fide NFL prospect.

What’s more, he continued to unselfishly split time with junior C.J. Mosley and sophomore Trey DePriest at the two interior linebacker spots, which obviously limited his statistics and time in the limelight. Specially, even though he was the starting weakside linebacker on the 2011 top-ranked defense, Johnson technically started only six games due to the Crimson Tide countering any passing formation the opposition opened with by inserting extra defensive backs.

He finished fourth in team tackles with 43, including 23 solo stops, 5½ tackles for loss, one sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, an interception and three pass breakups. On just about any other team the former prize prospect would have had better numbers, so when he said “Whatever the team needs,” Johnson more than proved he meant it.

“The kid has grown up and he’s been a great leader for us, for what seems like forever now because of the fact that he was involved in the first national championship,” defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said at the time. “I always kid with him and tell him, ‘Hey, you got to be a part of that because of an injury,’ so, for everybody else, they have to know that they have to be ready and prepare like Nico did, so that they’re ready when they get their opportunity. He was kind of thrown into the fire, but he has matured so much and he is one of the key leaders of this team.

“He’s a great kid. It doesn’t matter what you tell him to do, you know he’s going to go do it and do it with a great attitude.”

The examples were numerous. When players talked about getting back the weight room just a couple of days after defeating LSU 21-0 in the BCS Championship Game, Johnson was one of the guys leading the way.

A couple of weeks later when the early enrollees first showed up on campus, he again was one of the ones telling them not only just what to do, but why they needed to it.

“During the summer, when we had our team things when coaches weren’t around, you could see him kind of talking to the younger guys, as well as everybody else like on offense, too, just bringing the young guys in, help them get ready for how the coaches are going to come on them this season,” Mosley said. “You kind of see that progress in some of the younger guys helping the team out early in the season.”

Mosley knew what he was talking about because when he was a freshman two years previous, Johnson did the same thing for him, even though at the time he was just a sophomore.

“Nico’s a great leader,” linebacker Xzavier Dickson proclaimed.

With Johnson, though, it went far beyond the playing field. When he was out and about in Tuscaloosa, fans might have seen him with four or five teammates but not realize until later that everyone else was younger. Or how many times the Andalusia product went out of his way to shake someone’s hand and say hello.

Johnson also did so without really thinking about it, and with a smile. It’s just who he was as a player, sort of a big brother to everyone on the Crimson Tide.

“Pretty much,” he said. “That's because I'm one of the older guys around here. Me, Robert (Lester), (Damion) Square, Barrett (Jones), you could say that.”

Having position leaders is something Coach Nick Saban strives for with each team, like with Lester and Square with the secondary and defensive line respectively, and Barrett Jones on the offensive line.

However, what was different in his situation was that the players serving as the core of the veteran leadership were first known for just being good guys. They’ve had no arrests or major issues while exceling in the classroom. Saban made numerous mentions during the offseason to how proud he was of the team’s approach and attitude, and one has to believe that the entire coaching staff has slept a little better at night knowing that these guys have been looking out for their teammates as well.

That’s not to say they couldn’t play as well as anyone else — after all, Jones won the Outland Trophy as college football’s best interior lineman in 2011 — and Johnson came into the 2012 season with 38 games of experience and a nice ring collection.

But there still was a bit of a transition.

“Nico is a guy that football is very, very important to,” Saban said. “He’s really a good person. He’s always been very contentious about how he does what he does and the example he sets for others. I think he’s always been a little shy about maybe saying something to somebody else because he was so concerned being a perfectionist himself and now, he’s got a lot of experience and knowledge, I see him not only doing a good job of setting an example, but also taking responsibility to correct other players and making them aware of the standard that everybody needs to play at so we have a chance to be successful.

“I’ve been very pleased with that.”

So yes, “Big Brother” was helping guide the 2012 Crimson Tide defense, but unlike George Orwell's novel 1984 or reality television in this case it was a good thing.

“He’s a great, humble guy,” Mosley said. “Great in class, great personality, just a great person to be around.

“And he’s also a great friend.”

92] Wallace Gilberry, DL

  • 2007 All-SEC
  • Had a career-best 80 tackles in 2007, his lone season playing for Nick Saban. Was also credited with 27 tackles for a loss and 10 sacks

Five things to know about Wallace Gilberry:

- In 2004, played in every game as a freshman and led the team with 13 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks.

- His 27 tackles for a loss in 2007 are second on the Alabama single-season list behind Derrick Thomas’ 39 in 1988.

- Gilberrry is also second on the Crimson Tide all-time lost with 60.5, trailing only Thomas (68.0).

- Finished his career with 21.5 sacks.

- Made his NFL debut with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008, retired after his second stint with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2016. Had 191 tackles, 24 sacks, seven forced fumbles and six recovered. In 2012 scored a touchdown for the Bengals against the Eagles.

93] DJ Hall, WR

  • Had school-record 13 catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-17 rout of Tennessee in 2007
  • During lone season under Nick Saban had 68 catches for 1,005 yards and six touchdowns.

Five things to know about DJ Hall:

- Was first receiver in Crimson Tide history to post consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons.

- Combined with Tyrone Prothro to become just the fourth tandem in Alabama history to have 100 receiving yards in the same game (vs. Southern Miss, 2005).

- His seven 100-yard receiving games in 2006 is still tied for the school single-season record.

- Had three-straight 100-yard performances against Tennessee, but his only touchdowns were as a senior.

- Finished career with 194 catches for 2,923 yards and 17 touchdowns.

94] Vinnie Sunseri, S

  • Fifth-round pick in 2014 NFL Draft
  • As a freshman made 11 special-teams tackles, had 31 total
  • Was credited with 54 tackles as a sophomore, including 6.0 for a loss, and made two interceptions
  • Returned two interceptions for touchdowns as a junior despite playing in just six games due to a knee injury

A Q&A with Vinnie Sunseri:

When it came to his partner at the safety spot, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix had one word to describe Vinnie Sunseri: “Crazy.”

“You never have to tell him to pick it up at all. He gives 110 (percent) effort, no matter if he’s hurt, limping, or doesn’t have any legs, he’s going to give his all until he passes out. That’s a crazy dude.”

Read More

When asked about it and other things in 2013, Sunseri said he took it as a compliment.

Q: So we’ve all been hearing about how hard freshman linebacker Reuben Foster hits. Does he hit harder that you?

“That's a matter of opinion. I don't get to hit too much, especially not as much as I want to now with the new targeting rule. Reuben knows how to lower his head and bring the boom, but I still think I hit harder.”

Q: How does the new emphasis on targeting affect your style of play?

“I'm just trying to make plays on the ball more than I'm trying to hit people now. I think it has helped me a little bit. As a DB (defensive back), you want to get the ball out and make sure they don't catch the ball. If you hit them and they catch the ball, it's not anything special. I've been really focusing on hooking and swatting and doing whatever Coach Saban wants me to do.”

Q: What kind of emphasis was placed on it during training camp?

“We actually had a referee from the SEC come in and tell us what was going to be called an illegal hit, what was going to get you ejected and what you need to do to prevent that.”

Q: How about how you practice?

“As a practice standpoint, no, I’m going full speed every single time. But at the same time, Coach Saban has definitely looked at me and told me I’ve got to be smart with how I approach tackles and how I approach tackling people when they’re up in the air and going for the football. That’s something we’ve worked on.”

Q: So is being called crazy by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix a compliment?

“Yes, it's definitely a compliment. I give all I got. I try to give all I can for the team because I know they'd do the same for me and if I can do anything to help the team that's what I'm going to do. I'm not going to go half. I'm going to go full speed every time.”

Q: Speaking of complimenting, you and Ha Ha seem like a good combination. Do you play well to each other’s strengths?

“We kind of came in at the same time and whenever we were freshmen in 7-on-7 drills it was me and him out there, and Mark Barron, of course, because he was helping us out. It was kind of funny, last year my first pick came on the same day as his first pick and his second pick came on the same day as my second pick and my mom was calling us peanut butter and jelly. She said we go good together. We're a little different, but we go good with each other. We know how to bounce off of each other and I feel like everyone on the defense is like that right now, everyone knows how to mold with each other and knows what the other person is thinking before they even say it. We've got a good little connection going on right now.”

Q: Excuse the bad joke, but is the PB&J nickname sticking at all?

“Yeah, it's sticking a little bit. I'll call him jelly every now and then. I've got to be peanut butter, because I'm a little stronger than he is.”

Q: Do you remember your first scrimmage at Alabama?

“Yeah, I remember my first scrimmage. I remember looking across the ball and seeing Trent Richardson looking at me and thinking, “Golly, I hope he don’t get the ball right now.”

Q: Did he?

“Yeah, he got it – and I hit him, but I broke my whole helmet trying to tackle him.”

95] Quinton Dial, DE

  • Fifth-round pick in 2013 NFL Draft
  • The junior-college transfer was credited with 46 tackles and 2.5 sacks over two seasons

A Q&A with Quinton Dial:

Q: Even though you’re from Alabama, how is it that you ended up wanting to play for the Crimson Tide?

I didn’t really grow up as a college football fan, I didn’t really get into it until I started playing and colleges wanted me to come play for them. How I got involved with Alabama, Kevin Steele started recruiting me when I was a junior up until he left and went to Clemson. I just felt really at home when I came here. I had a great relationship with the coaching staff and the players. I just felt it was the place for me.

Q: You were also a tight end in high school, which position do you like more?

I like to hit people.

Q: Are you Alabama’s version of the movie “The Blind Side?”

You can call it that.

Q: Can you tell the story and who was influential in your life?

I lost my mom when I was 10 years old to a house fire, and for a couple of years it was just me, my dad and my brother. Then we moved out to Clay where I went to high school (Chalkville). I was working, playing football and going to school and we got evicted. I was ‘Man, what am I going to do? I still have to play ball and stuff.’ I was going to a church called Northport, and I was talking to a couple of families, asking them for advice because I didn’t know what to do, and I ran into these families, the Murdocks (Jerry and Gina) and the Denhams (Paul and Denise). The Murdocks, they took me in, and I stayed with them until I went to junior college. The Murdocks and the Denhams, they really helped me out.

Q: So what did you think of the movie?

There were some similarities between the movie and my life, but the movie can’t tell it all. I’ve seen some stuff in my lifetime that some people never see in their whole life. I think it made me the person I am today, to be very thankful and respectful of everybody.

Q: Do a lot of your teammates know the story?

A lot of them don’t.

Q: So after all that, what was that first game like with the Crimson Tide?

Oh man, words can’t explain how it felt. Knowing that I worked so hard just to get here, went the JuCo route, had to put up with a lot there, then get here and work my butt off to get to where I am today. It’s a great feeling.

Q: A lot of players say there’s nothing like running through the tunnel for the first time.

Yeah, I had the butterflies (laughs). It was a great feeling though, and that’s when I got my first sack here.

Q: Is it true that if football doesn’t work out as a profession you’d like to become an FBI agent?

I just always wanted to be like a cop and work my way up. It’s something that I always wanted to do as a kid and I still want to do it.

Q: Are you studying for that?

Criminal justice.

This story is a preview of the kind of content that will soon be part of our premium page, BamaCentral+

The Saban Top 100 will be revealed over the course of the 2020 football season. The series thus far:

Introduction

96-10: Trey DePriest, Damion Square, Christion Jones, John Parker Wilson, Simeon Castille 

91] Nico Johnson, LB

  • Fourth-round selection in 2013 NFL Draft
  • Had starts all four years, 20 total. Played in 51 games
  • Had a career-high 54 tackles as a senior, including 16.5 tackles for a loss, and had two forced fumbles
Member Exclusive

Get Exclusive Access to Bama Central Content