One of the few unknowns about the Ole Miss defense this year is middle linebacker.
Rebels coach Hugh Freeze and defensive coordinator Dave Wommack moved senior C.J. Johnson there in the spring in their quest to replace D.T. Shackelford.
Junior college transfer Christian Russell played behind Shackelford last season with moderate success. He’s strong and athletic and says he’s more comfortable and confident this time around.
The coaches, though, felt moving Johnson was their best to strengthen the position.
Johnson has been highly productive when healthy and is a natural leader.
The fact remains he hasn’t played the position since high school. There have been somewhat mixed reviews on his progress.
Here’s Wommack on the question of how’s CJ? “Excellent. We’re playing him at both defensive end and linebacker, and he’s doing a great job with both of them and a great job leading the team.”
He continued with a little commentary on Johnson and the other middle linebackers as well: “In the spring, when you hadn’t played that spot for a while it’s tough. He came in and looked at it, worked at it. All of them do a great job of getting us lined up. We’re not as experienced as we were there last year, but we are more athletic. I think we’ll get better and better as we go. There’s no question about that.”
Freeze wasn’t quite so glowing about Johnson’s camp.
“I don’t think we can tell that until we play, and they start throwing different things at him, sets and motions to recognize, all the things a middle linebacker has to check and get set. We won’t be able to say until then.”
Freeze really likes what Johnson offers when the play call is go get the passer.
“I think he’ll be extra good when we blitz him. I’m not sure what he’ll be when we line up and play base. We’ll have to find out.”