ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Like most boulders, Nico Johnson is much more fun once he’s built up a head of steam. The rookie linebacker spent the first 10 days of full-contact at the Kansas City Chiefs’ preseason camp laying more wood than Norm Abram.
Anthony Sherman? BAM!
Knile Davis? BAM!
Jamaal Charles? BAM!
When a guy starts treating Charles the way a hammer treats a railroad spike, it tends to get people … talking.
“He has done a good job here the last couple of days,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said of his new 249-pound toy from Alabama. “He’s like a lot of our guys, he has to keep getting better and better. He can’t let the amount of things we’re installing slow him down, and that’s obviously a challenge for everybody because it’s a new system. I think everybody’s been pleased with what he’s done; he’s done a couple of really good things in individual (reps) down against the guards working 1-on-1. He needs a lot of reps, that’s what he needs.”
Over the last week, the 6-foot-2 Johnson has gotten plenty in that regard, cycling between the second defensive unit and the first while pushing another newcomer, veteran Akeem Jordan, for the second starting inside linebacker slot opposite Pro Bowler Derrick Johnson. The fourth-round pick out of Alabama had shown enough natural instincts and athleticism during shorts-and-shells workouts in the spring to make a solid impression. But ever since the pads went on, the kid has turned to leaving wholesale dents.
“I was in my comfort zone,” Johnson said Tuesday when asked about his more, shall we say, memorable collisions. “I felt comfortable. More comfortable now than I did when I first got here (in the spring). I’m more confident in what Coach Bob is teaching and what (linebackers) coach (Gary) Gibbs is teaching. And right now, I’m just trying to go out, earn a spot and just keep competing every day and get better.”
Downhill? Downhill is cake.
Finding the same comfort while backpedaling, now, that’s the trick.
The scouting report says our pal Nico is a throwback, blessed with a Dick Butkus game — and a Butkus body — in a Matt Stafford league. The film doesn’t lie, and linebackers that can’t cover receivers in space are going to get picked on until they make a quarterback learn to regret it.
In the Southeastern Conference, the box is where manhoods are tested. In the AFC West, it’s where Wes Welker gets on your nerves, one stinking quick slant at a time.
“Anytime you’re picking a starting player, you are really picking dependability,” Sutton said. “You know this is what we’re going to get whatever percent of the time, this is (how) this guy is going to go and be able to deliver. That’s what you’re counting on.”
It’s not that Nico is unreliable. It’s that he’s untested. A dance with the tantalizing unknown, plucked from the kiddie pool and plopped straight into the deep end.
“It’s been a very good camp for me; each day, I’m getting better,” Johnson said. “Derrick and Justin (Houston) are holding me to a high standard, so I don’t have a choice but to get better every day.”
Hey, peer pressure works. So does familiarity: Johnson’s preseason NFL debut will come Friday at the Superdome, where his Crimson Tide clinched a BCS National Championship Game victory over LSU in January 2012.
“Very familiar with that place,” the young linebacker said. “I tell people all the time: ‘You know, I’ve never been in Arrowhead (Stadium).’ So whenever I play in Arrowhead, it’s going to be kind of different. But doing it in the Superdome … it’s going to be a comfort zone for me. I should be able to relax more than a normal person, a normal rookie and just go and play.”
Another plus: New Orleans is roughly four hours away from his hometown of Andalusia, Ala. Johnson says his grandmother and a handful of other family members and friends plan to attend the contest. Nico and Grandma are tight — the former ‘Bama defender spent his NFL draft weekend with her; she even suggested they do a little gardening to try and take his mind off the uncertainty and the stress. Johnson’s mother, Mamie, passed away in June 2010, a few months before Nico’s sophomore season, due to complications from diabetes.
“She’s been my rock ever since my mom passed away years ago,” Johnson said. “She’s everything to me right now. So, besides my teammates and myself, I go out and play for her every day.”
Same circle of trust, different stage. That’s the other big newbie challenge, once the curtain lifts: Keeping a calm, cool head while your heart is racing like Usain Bolt on Red Bull.
“You’re not looking for up here one day and down here the next,” Sutton continued. “Whoever is the most consistent player will be the player that gets the job.”
Rookies tend to be up here and down here a lot, especially as they adapt to the speed and the grind. Conventional wisdom says Jordan, who followed coach Andy Reid from Philadelphia, is the safer option.
But the crunching sounds coming from the practice fields at Missouri Western State say Nico has the more tantalizing upside, the kind that’s going to pummel its way onto the field. And sooner rather than later, you feel.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org