Johnson, Wright live walk-on dream at Sugar Bowl

Published 5:03 pm Thursday, January 1, 2009

NEW ORLEANS — The 75th Sugar Bowl is Exhibit A for those who’d argue the science of football recruiting remains inexact.

Their case rests on the parallel story lines of Alabama safety Rashad Johnson and Utah linebacker Mike Wright.

They were walk-ons when they joined their teams — no scholarships, just an opportunity to prove themselves on the practice field against all the prized recruits.

They played too hard, and learned too quickly, to be ignored. Now they are leaders on their respective defenses.

“Those ratings that you get on (recruiting Web sites and magazines), those five-star ratings or whatever, those really don’t mean much,” Wright said Wednesday after his first practice in the Louisiana Superdome.

“It’s more about the character of the person you recruit. Anyone from anywhere, whether they’re a five-star, one-star or no-star rating, can come out and be a big contributor for a big Division I program.”

Wright calls the defensive signals from his middle linebacker position and has a team-high 74 tackles.

“He’s developed into a tremendous player, somebody that the defense and the team relies on, and somebody that you just respect,” Utah defensive end Paul Kruger said. “He’s the type of guy that younger guys that are walking on and high school kids aspire to be like because he … isn’t flashy, isn’t huge, isn’t tremendously fast, but he just gets it done and comes to work everyday. That’s the type of guy you’ve got to be to walk on, to earn a job and earn a scholarship.”

Wright got a late start in football. He focused on basketball and baseball at Bountiful High School in Utah. Bountiful football coach Larry Wall had seen him grow as an athlete and sometimes helped him work out in the weight room.

When the spring semester ended, Wall had a few parting words for Wright.

“He basically said, ‘I’ll see you at summer conditioning for football,'” Wright recalled. “I just kind of laughed it off, but at the same time, he’s the kind of man who demands respect and I kind of believed him.”

On the first day of summer workouts, two members of the football team showed up at Wright’s house. He played defensive end and receiver during his one high school season. His plan from there was to play at Southern Utah, a school in the Football Championship Subdivision.

That changed when he went on a Mormon mission to Bolivia, where he developed insomnia. Sleeping only one or two hours a night, he began to waste away, dropping from about 230 pounds to around 195. He was sent home for treatment, which involved sleeping pills and psychiatric help.

Eventually, he transferred to Utah, hoping to revive his fledgling football career. He played mostly on special teams in 2006, his first season with the Utes. He became a starter this season.

Like Wright, Johnson became a starter in his junior season, quickly adapting to the complex defensive schemes then-new coach Nick Saban began to install. Johnson is now a co-captain and will start his 27th straight game for Alabama in Friday night’s Sugar Bowl.

This season, he was a second-team AP All-America selection after making 82 tackles and intercepting five passes, two of which he returned for touchdowns.

Middle linebacker Rolando McClain, who makes the Tide’s defensive calls, said he routinely looks to Johnson for help.

“You can’t replace him. That guy is amazing. He’s smart. He’s smarter than me,” McClain said. “If I ever don’t know anything, I look back to Rashad and he’ll tell me. I’m going to miss him.”

While watching film of Alabama’s defense, Utah quarterback Brian Johnson noticed the way Alabama’s star safety covered the field against both the run and pass, seeing similarities to one of the most feared safeties in the NFL.

“He kind of reminds me a little bit of (the Indianapolis Colts’) Bob Sanders in the fact that they bring him up to support the run, he gets back in coverage,” Brian Johnson said. “He’s kind of their do-it-all guy. I have great respect for him.”

Having grown up in Sulligent, Ala., Rashad Johnson takes a certain pride in the resolve he showed to play for a revered college program in his home state, as well as his role in the Tide’s return to national prominence.

“It means so much to be in the position I’m in, to be part of the University of Alabama and to be able to add to this team and this legacy,” he said. “It’s been a great ride. There’s been some ups and downs, but if I had to do it all over again I definitely would. I’ve learned to love this university and the guys around here.”