After Spring: Linebackers
Perhaps the biggest signal that Hugh Freeze and staff really like what they have along the defensive line was their willingness to move C.J. Johnson to middle linebacker.
There’s a void in the middle with the departure of D.T. Shackelford, known later in his career by his given name, Deterrian.
D.T. was a great story of perseverance, through two knee surgeries, to come back and not only survive by thrive. He was last year’s third-leading tackler with 65, five of those for loss.
Shackelford wasn’t outstanding in pass coverage, and Johnson won’t be either. He will bring many of the same qualities that Shackelford did, however, strength, physicality, experience and leadership among them.
Johnson in one-on-one coverage against fast and athletic tight ends and receivers is something Freeze and defensive coordinator Dave Wommack – who now coaches the linebackers after new assistant Corey Batoon was hired to coach safeties – will try to avoid.
They’ll do that by using certain players in certain situations. Those players will be lightly experienced.
Here’s Freeze on his middle linebackers after the Grove Bowl: “We still have a ways to go. I look forward to Shawn Curtis getting here and adding some depth to that. There’s no question that Temario Strong and Christian Russell made improvements. We think C.J. can do a lot of things for us. We just have to plan exactly what we are going to do with him, come fall camp, and figure out what he is best at. That will be a rotation there.”
Russell, a first-year junior college transfer last season, and Strong had only spot duty from the line of scrimmage last year.
It’s telling that Freeze so quickly inserted Curtis, an in-coming freshman, into the depth equation.
He’s been described as a diamond in the rough and could turn out to be a steal, but he wasn’t recruited hard by the biggest programs in Florida, his native land.
December signee Terry Caldwell led Mississippi junior colleges with 122 tackles last year, 12 ½ behind the line, but is still learning his way around the block at the college level.
There’s more stability at Stinger, the Rebels’ outside linebacker spot, with Denzel Nkemdiche returning for his senior year.
This assumes Nkemdiche returns to full strength from a broken ankle sustained in late October’s 10-7 loss at LSU. Indications are that will be the case.
The elder Nkemdiche was on course last season to come much closer to the numbers he posted in 2012 when he was second-team All-SEC and four outlets named him a freshman All-America. He had 28 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack in seven games last season.
Sophomore DeMarquis Gates turned heads as a freshman. He will back up Nkemdiche and could slide to middle and help as well, particularly on third downs.
Johnson’s career at end is not finished. He won’t come off the field on third downs but will move back to end in those situations.