OXFORD – When Ole Miss knocked off Oklahoma State in the sparkling new Cowboys Stadium last year, the Rebels’ second-straight Cotton Bowl victory, millions watched on television.
Among them was Rishaw Johnson.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. The plan was for Johnson, then a redshirt sophomore, to be an integral part of the Rebels’ offensive line.
But plans often go awry, and unfortunately, Johnson’s did.
Off-field issues mounted, suspensions followed. The cumulative effect was that Johnson’s season was limited to four starts at right guard, five appearances total, with the last against Alabama on Oct. 10.
Without him, the Rebels were missing a player ranked in his class of recruits in 2007 as the No. 11 player in Louisiana, the No. 10 guard in the nation by Rivals.com.
Ole Miss coaches believe Johnson has All-SEC talent, but his poor choices were keeping him from using it.
“Older guys mature when you’ve been around here a while, and he’s done that,” offensive line coach Mike Markuson said. “He wants to do this.”
He wanted to be at the bowl game last year but was not welcomed, the last punitive action taken after a December meeting with Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt to discuss his future in the program and before Johnson’s road to recovery.
“Missing the bowl game was big. I had to watch it at home on TV in New Orleans,” Johnson said. “That was a real turning point for me.”
Johnson missed not only the experience, a week in Dallas with the parties, the thrill of the new stadium, he also missed the bowl gifts distributed to teammates in December – a new television, clothes and more.
Missing Johnson’s very physical style, the Rebels had a successful run game but began to rely on the shiftiness of Dexter McCluster, not the power-running of Brandon Bolden and Enrique Davis, who return and are presently the top two backs on this year’s depth chart.
McCluster rushed for 1,169 yards in basically six games at tailback.
Bolden is confident the rushing game will have continued success, but much of that will rely on Johnson, he says.
When Johnson wasn’t on the field last year, the Rebels had three seniors on the interior in center Daverin Geralds, guard Reid Neely and John Jerry, now with the Miami Dolphins, who moved from tackle to guard when freshman Bobby Massie took over at right tackle.
Now Johnson is the Rebels’ most experienced player across the interior of the line.
Left guard Alex Washington, a fourth-year junior, played in 13 games, but his most action came against Northern Arizona. Center A.J. Hawkins played in 10 games, none of them starts. Their backups, Josh Tatum and Michael Brown, haven’t played in a game yet.
“Rishaw’s very very important to us. When you have a guy like Rishaw with talent and experience who can do the things he does, and when people have no experience behind him, he has to be that guy out there at all times,” Bolden said.
Johnson hears the call and is eager to respond, but it comes with this caveat.
“He has to do it the head coach’s way, the administration’s way,” Markuson said.
So the Rebels’ most talented and experienced interior lineman begins the season with an asterisk, one he hopes will be quickly removed when coaches and fans see a new pattern of consistency.
“I think about things different now,” Johnson said. “I’m a year older, and I try to do the right thing more. Sitting out those games made me hungry to come back, and I feel like I have a lot to prove.”
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal