By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Game Week is here, and Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze has spent the off-season preaching “compete for 60 minutes” to the Rebels.
Freeze may very well have found his flag-bearer in E.J. Epperson.
Signed as a tight end, Epperson spent four seasons in the program on offense. Unable to find consistent playing time, he approached Freeze in June and asked to be moved to defensive end. He pledged effort and focus and delivered on both counts.
Now Epperson finds himself running with the first-team defense as Saturday’s opener against Central Arkansas comes into view.
When his coaches talk about Epperson’s gifts, they don’t mention an abundance of skill.
“He’s just one of those blue-collar, hard-core workers who’s going to play his rear end off and give you the best he can every snap. Is he going to be the best player in the SEC? No, but he’s going to be tough, and he’s going to do what you tell him to do,” co-defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said.
Epperson showed his effort and toughness in high school at Humboldt, Tenn. Class 2A football players rarely specialize at one position. Epperson had eight sacks as a junior and as a senior had 55 tackles and twice scored with interceptions.
He had played in only spot duty at Ole Miss, recording just two interceptions, both of them in 2010.
“I was really just the back-up tight end. I’m a senior, and I don’t want to be a second-team guy. I want to go out there and help the team and make some plays,” Epperson said. “I just want to play football. I think coming off the edge, I can do that. I’ve got the speed for it. I can maybe cause some disruption back there in the pocket for the quarterback.”
No sale required
Epperson said Freeze required no hard sell when they met in June. Freeze cited Epperson’s effort when moving him to the first team in the middle of camp.
The Rebels are looking for playmakers at end. Ole Miss had just 13 sacks in 2011, only five by defensive ends. Wayne Dorsey had three sacks, Gerald Rivers two, and neither remain in the program.
Though Epperson’s move from offense is more dramatic, he isn’t the only move to defensive end. Freeze has also put third-year sophomore Ralph Williams there after Williams had success at linebacker last year.
There are high expectations for sophomore C.J. Johnson at the other end. Johnson, of Philadelphia, was the state’s top recruit two years ago.
The move has been a challenge for Epperson.
“It’s been very difficult. I put in a lot of work in the summer. I asked coach Freeze, and he gave me the green light. I told him I would pray to God and give it everything I’ve got,” he said.