PARRISH ALFORD: Great depth can’t replace best players

C.J. Johnson missed most of last year due to a broken leg, putting a damper on the Rebels' pass rush. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

C.J. Johnson missed most of last year due to a broken leg, putting a damper on the Rebels’ pass rush. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

PARRISH ALFORD

PARRISH ALFORD

The buzzword around Ole Miss football right now is depth, but the best way to use depth is not at all.

Everybody wants it, and you have to have it to be successful.

It’s great when you can field a second team that offers little or no talent drop when called upon.

Ideally those reserves come in with fresh legs and spell the starters. However, if the reserves are pressed into starting roles it means the Rebels’ best players aren’t on the field.

As was the case with C.J. Johnson last year.

This time a year ago, Johnson was trying to come back from a springtime broken leg, and his coaches were hoping he’d be healthy. Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack called Johnson his unit’s best player.

That’s who the Rebels were missing, their best past rusher and defensive MVP, when Johnson’s season ended with ankle surgery after playing in only four games.

Without him, Ole Miss was woefully inadequate in pressuring quarterbacks, the Rebels’ 1.54 sacks per game ranking 12th in the SEC and 96th nationally.

Johnson’s junior year was returned to him with a medical redshirt, and he’s healthy going into this season. A former No. 1 recruit in Mississippi, Johnson said he feels like he hasn’t scratched the surface of his career.

“I’ve had an OK career, it’s still not done. I’ve still got two more years left. I see a lot in the future,” he said.

Without Johnson, there are different pass rush options that weren’t around last year.

Florida International transfer Fadol Brown becomes eligible, and prep school signee Marquis Haynes showed quickness in the spring.

They look the part. They expect success, but right now they’re marked by their potential to produce not by what they’ve already produced.

Robert Nkemdiche goes into his sophomore season after several games at the end of 2013 and a full spring at defensive tackle. He was dominant at the position in the bowl game and should be much more comfortable there this season.

Nkemdiche will do more than tie up blockers at the line of scrimmage. He’ll provide push along the interior which should only enhance the play of his teammates on the edge.

It’s quite possible that an area noticeably weak on a defense that was statistically average – just seventh in the SEC in scoring defense and total defense – could become a noteworthy advantage.

The best chance for this to happen is with a strong, healthy and hungry C.J. Johnson on the field.

He brings a quick first step and explosiveness that helps him make plays in the backfield plus a toughness in attitude that says, “Follow me.”

Depth is a wonderful thing, and Ole Miss has more of it right now than it’s had during Hugh Freeze’s time as head coach.

This defense, though, can be special if Johnson is healthy and becomes one of the top playmakers in the SEC.

Parrish Alford (parrish.alford@Journalinc.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily at InsideOleMissSports.com.