ATHENS — Gushing praise, Allen Creasy couldn’t find enough good things to say when describing Johnnie Anderson.
Adjectives like special, gifted, intelligent and unselfish were used often.
The Athens High football coach even took advantage of the opportunity by tossing out the ultimate compliment.
“Johnnie is a once in a lifetime player,” Creasy said. “Most coaches are lucky if they get just one like him during their career.”
High praise, especially coming from Creasy. The list of talented athletes who have played for the Athens coach is long and impressive. Alfred McCullough, Rob Ezell, Karlos Jones, Wes Brown, Stephen Rivers and William Ming fill the short list.
But Creasy insists that Anderson, a versatile two-way starter, is among the Athens elite.
“He’s a smart kid who knows how to play the game and plays it the right way,” Creasy said. “I can’t even begin to describe what he means to our team.”
Anderson burst onto scene as a sophomore last season, leading Athens’ defense in tackles and interceptions while earning first-team honors on The Daily’s Class 4A-6A all-area football team. Anderson’s teammates voted him as the team MVP following that 2011 campaign, something Creasy said is rare for a sophomore.
Anderson hasn’t let up in his second season as a starter. He has lived up to the hype — and then some.
Through five games, Anderson has forced five fumbles and is among Athens’ leaders in tackles. He also has taken a role on the Golden Eagles’ offense has a wide receiver — providing a much-needed spark as a big-play threat in the passing game.
The fact that Anderson starts on both sides of the football is rare. Because more teams are using spread offenses — especially in the Alabama High School Sports Association’s larger classifications — two-way starters are now almost a thing of the past.
Spread offenses stretch the field, both vertically and horizontally, which means defenders have more ground to cover. Fatigue is a factor on both sides of the ball because of the increased passing game.
But for Anderson, excelling in both phases hasn’t been an issue. The junior, who is 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, has embraced the expanded role, and is taking full advantage of the opportunity.
“It was kind of challenging at first,” Anderson said. “But I’m getting used to it now. The biggest obstacle is fatigue, but that’s just something you have to fight through. It’s all about taking care of yourself and making sure you’re ready to play more snaps by getting good reps in practice.”
Anderson had a breakout offensive performance during Week 3, when he caught five passes for 103 and a touchdown in a 23-8 loss against Hartselle.
A solid offensive performer? Yes.
But it’s defense where Anderson shines brightest.
A ball-hawking safety, Anderson has a knack for providing big defensive plays. It’s not a fluke that Anderson already has forced five fumbles, either.
“Johnnie has a nose for the football,” Creasy said. “My best example would be what Tyrann Matheiu did at LSU last year. He was a guy who had a knack for stripping the ball loose. Johnnie’s technique is very similar. When he sees an opportunity, he goes in strong and does everything possible to strip the ball. He’s made some big plays for us this year by doing that.”
The success enjoyed on the field by Anderson can’t be denied. He is arguably one of the best defensive backs in the area.
Anderson shrugs off the praise. The Athens junior would gladly trade individual accolades for something he believes is far more important:
Better overall results for the Golden Eagles.
Athens hosts rival East Limestone Friday night in must-win game for both teams. The winner will remain in the playoff hunt. The loser likely will need help to get in.
“It’s a win or go home situation for us,” Anderson said. “At least that’s the way we’re looking at it. There is no more room for error. We’ve got to look at this like it’s a whole new season — one where we’ve got to win out to get in the playoffs.
“Everybody is doubting us, and that’s OK. We’ve played a tough schedule so far — played some of the best teams in the state. If anything, that’s got us ready for this back stretch that we’re about to begin. It’s time for us to start playing our best football, because we can’t afford not to now.”
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