By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor
Playing Alabama is, for LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson, "personal.”
It’s both a football and a family thing. Johnson’s first cousin, Eddie Lacy, is a former Alabama running back, but even with Lacy now crashing into NFL defenses for the Green Bay Packers – and Johnson likely joining him in the league next fall – LSU’s junior defensive tackle is eager to take on the Tide Saturday.
"I’m not saying I dislike them, but I have an edge against them,” Johnson said. "It’s always been Alabama and LSU. This year, people are saying Alabama is going to get past us. Personally, I don’t like that.”
Johnson also probably doesn’t like his 1-2 career record against Alabama, losses that cost him either a shot (2012) at the national title, or the national title itself (2011).
"This is my rival,” he said. "Growing up, I watched LSU and Alabama games, and those were the big games I watched. I’m ready to take the field as a full-time starter for this team and take the opportunity to play in this big time game.”
Johnson’s first season as a full-time starter hasn’t gone exactly according to plan, at least from the outside looking in. A preseason all-conference player with All-American potential, Johnson has been largely neutralized for large chunks of the season. His 6.5 tackles for loss in LSU’s first nine games is best on the team, but ranks only 13th in the SEC (tied, appropriately, with another lineman who inherited inflated expectations in South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney). Johnson’s three sacks are 17th in the SEC (behind four players from Missouri and Georgia, to put it in perspective).
That relative lack of production for a player who entered the season as a surefire first round pick in April’s NFL Draft has raised observing eyebrows, but Johnson brushes it off.
"I don’t worry about the stat sheet too much,” Johnson said. "When you’re that guy on that defensive front and that defense, they try to do everything to get you out of the scheme. The thing I’ve been doing all season is staying within the scheme of the defense and not try to do my own thing.”
So if Johnson’s comparatively minimal impact in the stat book is surprising to outsiders, it was actually something he came into the season prepared for.
"I expected myself to get a lot of attention from offensive coaches on other teams, mainly because I was the most seasoned on the defensive line and I have those wild plays,” he said. "It’s a respect thing. It shows people respect you, and they don’t want you to make the plays, because they know if you start doing what you do, it’s going to pick the whole defense up.
"It hasn’t been a disappointing season for me this year. It’s just been a rough one. I’m just getting overstretched.”
The bye week allowed Johnson to recover from the roughness of the season, providing ample downtime to help him get treatment for elbow and shoulder injuries. He’ll enter Alabama as close to 100 percent as he’s been all season – a prognosis he knows he needs for the type of game that lay ahead.
"It’s just hard-nosed football,” he said. "You have to be ready to put your head in there and go full out. This epitomizes SEC football at its finest. You have to be physical, punch them in the mouth.”
Johnson says he’s ready to do that, and though he plans on staying within the scheme of the defense – as he has all season, to his statistical detriment – he also hopes to make a bigger impact within that role.
"It’s a statement game for myself,” he said. "The first couple of games haven’t been that wild, and everyone is looking for those big plays the Freak is normally used to making. At the end of the day, teams coach their schemes around guys and align a great scheme. Honestly, I’m just ready to come out this game and play my best football this season.”