Kelly Johnson was an unlikely walk-on at Alabama. He is from Charlotte, N.C., (although by a quirk of a brief family move, in the past he has been listed on Alabama rosters as being from Bluffton, S.C.). His father went to Ole Miss. At Providence Day School he was a quarterback and safety.
He picked the Crimson Tide for the same reason that many top scholarshipped players select Bama.
“My dad and I had a close relationship and watched a lot of football, and we always followed Coach Saban. That was definitely a big drive for me.”
Recruiters weren’t knocking at his door. “Not really,” he said. “Some D II schools looked at me a little bit. I just came here as a walk-on; wasn't expecting much.
“You never expect it but you dream about getting this opportunity every day, especially when you're a child watching football all your life.”
It has been a big week for a young man who came to Alabama hoping to be a safety. But, he said, he “grew a little bit,” and he was listed on rosters as a linebacker. Johnson is now listed at 6-3, 230.
He said his friends and family are excited. “My phone has been ringing off the hook,” he said. “I’m telling them to relax a little bit. I’m trying to relax a little bit.”
Johnson could deep snap, so he thought maybe he could work his way onto the depth chart there. He has always been the back-up snapper to Carson Tinker, but hob-nobbing with the special teams guys got him a spot on kickoff coverage.
The special teams coordinator is Bobby Williams, who is also the tight ends coach.
“I called coach Williams and told him I'd like to try tight end last year,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he moved up the depth chart “through hard work. I was a snapper, so I could get downfield. Maybe a little bit of tight end helped me out.” The result was he moved up to first team on the kickoff coverage team in 2011. He was in on five tackles last year.
“I felt like I could work harder and maybe show coach some athleticism and get on special teams first,” he said. “It's just exploded from there, I guess.”
Everything about this story seems unlikely. But there is a reason Kelly Johnson fits into the Nick Saban line-up.
“He’s a tough guy, a physical guy,” Saban said. “He’s a fullback-type by nature. Kelly has been in the program for a long time, and so he’s a veteran. He’s got a lot of toughness and he’s a good blocker and he’s done a nice job.”
Johnson acts as if this is no bigger for him than for any other Alabama player. Although he said it has been a big week, he adds, “Just ready for the first game o the season. Definitely ready to get out there.”
Johnson said his role as a tight end will be to “go out for passes and block for running backs; clear the way. I like to lead block. I like to get physical.”
He adds, “There are definitely some things I need to work on and get better in every area.”
It’s tough to be a walk-on at any college. And for a team competing for the national championship every year, having top recruiting classes year after year?
“It’s extremely difficult to get noticed,” Johnson said. “I think that the biggest thing is showing up every day and carrying the water and being persistent. Hard work every day.”
Making it on to special teams was a big step.
“It’s nice to go out there and play and be responsible for what you have to do,” he said. “You want to be there for the guys and do what you have to do and do it right and know why you’re doing it. It’s cool to just go out and play. Be all out.”
And, he said, his starting job at H-back notwithstanding, he is still on the kickoff coverage team.
Johnson said walk-ons are encouraged by the success of players like Will Lowery, who moved up from special teams to a spot in the secondary rotation, and Rashad Johnson, who went from walk-on to All-America.
He also is appreciative of the help he gets from other tight ends. “Before, it was Brad Smelly, a good friend of mine, but Michael Williams, Harrison Jones, Brian Vogler, all those guys have done a good job helping me out.”
Johnson has a big fan on the other side of the line. Tide safety Vinnie Sunseri, who came to Alabama when his father, Sal, left the Carolina Panthers to join the Saban staff, said, “I’ve known Kelly since he was in the seventh grade. Kelly and my brother (Santino, now the quarterback at Pittsburgh) played middle school football together.”
Vinnie said he was in awe of “Kelly Boy.” Sunseri said Johnson could dunk a basketball in seventh grade.
“He was a freak athlete,” Sunseri said. “I got here and he was a walk-on, but he busted his butt. He definitely deserves everything he gets. He’s a great guy. I’m so happy for him. My family is happy for him.”
Sunseri describes Johnson as an H-back who is similar to last year’s starter, Brad Smelley, “except a little shorter. He’s quick, fast, has great hands. He knows exactly what to do on every play, how to leverage certain people to get blocks. He’s worked really hard to get in this situation.”
Johnson said that his father’s favorite movie is “Rudy,” the story of a walk-on at Notre Dame.
That’s not hard to believe.