TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – He's literally the biggest surprise of the season.
Alabama nose tackle Terrence Cody, a junior college transfer, wasn't close to being the most highly touted player in Alabama's top-ranked recruiting class. If it's possible for a 6-foot-5, 365-pound man to slip under the radar, Cody pulled it off. Yet he now is the center of attention in the SEC. After all, how can you miss him?
The behemoth in the middle of Alabama's defensive line has helped give the Crimson Tide the nation's second-ranked run defense while catapulting one of the nation's most storied programs back into title contention. Not even Cody himself expected to make this kind of an instant impact.
"I didn't think I was going to be this big," he said. "I've surprised myself big-time."
His extraordinary combination of size and athleticism already has made him a folk hero around campus, where he's hailed as "Mount Cody."
He has weighed as much as 420 pounds, yet he's athletic enough to dunk a basketball. He has the strength to withstand constant double and triple teams, but he also possesses enough stamina to jog up a 2½-mile mountain trail.
No wonder NFL scouts are drooling over his long-term potential.
"Defensive linemen are a hot commodity in the NFL," said former NFL executive Michael Lombardi, now a writer for nationalfootballpost.com. "Dominant defensive linemen are an even bigger commodity. He happens to be both."
Cody's sudden emergence as one of the most dominant defensive players in the nation is one of this season's most interesting stories. How he got here is perhaps an even better tale.
Cody, who's now seen as a potential first-round draft pick, wasn't playing football at all four years ago. He had to overcome tragedy in his family life and trouble in the classroom. And his excessive weight created questions about whether he could physically handle the demands of big-time college football.
"A lot of people passed on him just because of his size, which I thought was pretty funny," said Steve Campbell, who coached Cody last season at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, in Perkinston. "Normally when you get a guy that big, he can't move. They thought maybe if he lost some pounds, he could be an offensive guard. That was the comment I kept hearing. I thought he didn't have to lose a pound and he could be a dominant defensive tackle or nose guard."
Campbell wasn't the only one who believed that. Scott Jones, who coached Cody at Riverdale High School in Fort Myers, Fla., predicted this kind of success almost as soon as he saw Cody – then a 6-2, 275-pound high school freshman – roaming the halls. The problem was that Cody rarely gave himself a chance to show off his extraordinary potential.
Poor grades prevented Cody from playing football as a sophomore and junior, putting his career in jeopardy before it ever really got going. Jones has coached high school football since 1970 and couldn't remember any other examples of a kid who managed to regain his academic eligibility as a senior after sitting out two entire seasons. Cody was the exception.
"My freshman year, I was pretty good," Cody said. "They brought me up to varsity, and I was dominating. I let all that get into my head, that I was good and didn't have to go to class. My grades went down, and I had to miss two years. … My teachers talked to me every day. One day I just said, 'I've got to get back on the field.' "
Cody also wanted to improve his grades in order to become a better role model for his four younger siblings. Cody was 11 when his father died, forcing him to spend his teen years helping take care of his three sisters and one brother.
"It was real difficult because everything was on me," Cody said. "I had to do good. My sisters looked up to me. If I was doing bad, they were going to do bad. I had to turn myself around and start doing good."
TIPPING THE SCALES
Alabama nose guard Terrence Cody is one of only about a half-dozen players who weigh at least 350 pounds and start for a Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-A) program. His status as a defensive player also makes him an exception to the rule. Most of the 350-pound club's members are offensive linemen. Here's a rundown of players on FBS rosters who weigh at least 350 pounds. Starters are listed in bold.
Once Cody regained his eligibility for his senior season, he wasted no time making a name for himself around campus. He earned a standing ovation from teammates by completing a 2.5-mile jog up a mountain – while weighing 400 pounds – during the Riverdale football team's preseason retreat in West Virginia. And Cody delivered such devastating hits that Jones instituted a rule preventing him from tackling teammates during practice, which led to a remarkable scene during one workout.
"This 240-pound fullback was running," Jones recalled. "(Cody) put his helmet on the kid's waist and lifted him up like he was a fireman carrying him on the shoulder. He brought him up to me and said, 'Is this what you want?' "
When Cody wasn't displaying brute strength on the football field, he was revealing his amazing athleticism on the basketball court. Cody averaged about eight rebounds and 12 points per game for Riverdale's basketball team. He showed remarkable footwork and change-of-direction skills for someone so large, though those skills didn't garner nearly as much attention as his occasional dunking exhibitions in practice.
"To all the other players, it was just so amazing, how he could run, stop, change direction and do everything," Riverdale basketball coach Herb Brown said. "He was just big and playful. I guess he never knew how amazing it was, what he was doing."
Cody's exploits made him a legend at Riverdale, but he remained a bit of a secret in the recruiting world. Cody's poor academic history was going to prevent him from playing for a Division I school as a freshman, but Jones still expected some big-time program to sign him, then place him at a junior college.
It didn't happen.
"I sent out film and talked to college coaches about him, but I think they were leery of his academic problems," Jones said. "I can understand that, but when you have a kid who's 6-6 (actually 6-5) and 380 pounds, you might want to take a hold of him."
Cody ended up at Mississippi Gulf Coast, where he helped the Bulldogs win a share of the national JUCO title last season and even ran for a touchdown out of a jumbo backfield on one occasion. Still, he was one of the lesser figures in Alabama's vaunted recruiting class. Rivals.com rated him as the No. 47 junior college recruit in the nation.
That didn't stop him from catching the attention of Alabama coach Nick Saban, who believed Cody's combination of power and quickness could make him an ideal nose tackle in the Tide's 3-4 defense.
"The big question was would he be able to manage his weight so that he'd be able to sustain his performance and get in the kind of condition he needed to play to his capacity," Saban said. "He's done a good job of it."
The weight issue also concerned Cody's new teammates, at least in the early going.
"During summer workouts, he maybe struggled at first," Alabama cornerback Javier Arenas said. "I was thinking, 'Man, this guy might be too big. Moving around (for) four quarters might not be his cup of tea.'
"But he adjusted fine. Probably by the second or third day of camp, he was out there doing his thing and I was thinking this guy might be the real deal."
Cody said he didn't really have to change what he ate. The problem was when he ate. He cut down on his late-night snacking and watched a couple of pounds disappear each day. The guy who once weighed well over 400 now is listed at 365.
Of course, that's still plenty big enough to clog up any running lanes opposing teams try to create between the tackles. That much became evident the night Cody made his college debut.
Alabama was facing Clemson's vaunted "Thunder & Lightning" backfield of James Davis and C.J. Spiller. They were considered the nation's top tailback tandem. Then they ran into Mount Cody.
Cody's physical presence helped limit Clemson to zero net rushing yards in the Tide's 34-10 rout. Davis and Spiller combined to run for 20 yards on eight carries.
"You shut down the two best running backs in college to only 20 yards, it's real exciting," Cody said. "I could see it in their eyes. They were looking confused. Everything they tried to do, we knew what they were doing because we had a scheme for it."
That performance set the tone for the rest of the season. Alabama has faced two of the nation's top nine rushers (Tulane's Andre Anderson and Arkansas' Michael Smith) along with preseason Heisman candidate Knowshon Moreno of Georgia, and the Tide are allowing just 50.8 rushing yards per game and 2.3 yards per carry.
How tough is it to run on a defense that features Cody in the middle?
"It's almost like a guessing game," said Alabama running back Glen Coffee, who tries working his way around Cody every day in practice. "You want to press the hole, but you know he's going to be in the hole. Then when you cut it back, he's big enough and quick enough to get in that hole also."
Cody's numbers don't jump off the stat sheet. He only has 15 tackles through his first six games. Then again, the Tide aren't asking Cody to make a bunch of tackles. They want him to clog the middle to make it easier for the rest of the defense to make plays. He's accomplishing that task because of a combination of size and athleticism that leaves teammates grasping for comparisons.
"I really haven't heard about it in the college level," Alabama defensive end Lorenzo Washington said as he struggled to come up with similar players. "You see it sometimes in the NFL – but not with his stamina – with guys like Shaun Rogers, Dan Wilkinson, Gilbert Brown and older players like that."
It's no wonder Washington had to come up with the names of NFL players while discussing Cody's attributes. In the college game, Cody has no peers.
Cody's unique skill set should earn him an NFL fortune at some point. The only question is when. As a junior college transfer, Cody is eligible to pursue a pro career after this season, though Lombardi said he believes Cody would benefit from staying in school for another year. Lombardi noted that Cody remains a raw prospect who could answer concerns about his weight and experience by playing one more year of college football.
Cody insists he isn't focused on the future just yet.
"I really don't think about it," he said. "People tell me, but I don't look at any message boards or anything like that. I just go out every Saturday and play my game. I'm thinking about really coming back for my senior year."
SEC running backs can only hope he changes his mind.