It was last August, when there was a big question concern CJ Johnson’s ability to come back from a spring-time broken leg, that Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack called Johnson his best player.
Later in the season Hugh Freeze would attribute the Rebels’ inconsistent pass rush in part to Johnson’s absence and opponents’ subsequent ability to change their blocking schemes. By then Johnson was down for the remainder of 2013 to have his right ankle surgically repaired.
So the Rebels’ coaching staff has no doubt been elated to hear Johnson say these words: “I’m so excited. My body feels good. I haven’t felt this good probably since I’ve been at Ole Miss. I’m stronger and faster so I’ll be better.”
Johnson led the team with 6.5 sacks in 2012. He appeared in only four games last year but recorded 12 tackles, a third of those behind the line. He had two quarterback pressures.
Pass rush needs some serious improvement. The Rebels were 96th in America in sacks last season, and what they did get done often involved dialing up a blitz, though nose tackle Issac Gross’ 3.5 sacks led the team.
Led the team.
An all-star caliber player will approach that figure in a game sometimes. The Rebels had no such player along the defensive line after Johnson’s exit.
Now they have him healthy and have intriguing new options around him with newcomers like Fadol Brown and Marquis Haynes. Robert Nkemdiche had two sacks last and is a more seasoned player.
Carlos Thompson is healthy again. Signed as a rush end out of high school, he was beginning to blossom when he went down last year.
It appears the Rebels have a chance to improve their pass rush.
“We’ve been playing pretty good. Now that everybody is playing faster and playing as a group I’m real excited to see what we’ve got,” Johnson said. “I think everybody’s putting forth the effort. This is the hardest I’ve seen this team work since I’ve been here.”