By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – When you arrive on campus as your state’s top recruit, expectations arrive with you.
Still, the high praise from his head coach earlier this week caught C.J. Johnson just a little off guard.
“I think he’s our best player,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said earlier this week as his team turned its focus to tonight’s regular season opener against Central Arkansas.
Johnson, a sophomore from Philadelphia, signed as a linebacker but didn’t have a “best player” experience at the position.
He was moved to end for the last three games, a position he’s fully embraced with the new staff.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with the way he’s bought in, the way he’s practiced up to this point,” Freeze said.
Johnson appeared in 11 games as a freshman and finished with 32 tackles, four tackles for loss and a sack.
He’s worked hard with the hope that his sophomore season will more closely align with what others – and Johnson, too – believe that he can become. Even so, Freeze’s words surprised Johnson.
“That kind of caught me off guard a little bit. I guess it just comes from preparing and hard work during the camp and just buying in to what the coaches are teaching.
It’s not that best-player territory is foreign to Johnson. Rivals.com ranked him the No. 1 player in Mississippi, the No. 21 player in the nation coming out of high school.
He had 300 tackles over his last two high school seasons, and his recruitment had No. 1 drama as he switched his verbal commitment from rival Mississippi State to Ole Miss.
Freeze’s hope is that Johnson coming off the edge can be a disruptive force in the backfield.
The Rebels had no real pass-rush threat after Wayne Dorsey’s injury in the middle of last year. They amassed just 13 sacks compared to opponents’ 34.
Freeze has placed his hope in Johnson to reverse that trend.
“I expect him to be a major factor in our pass rush schemes,” Freeze said.
Johnson knows this and has tried to respond with the mental reps as well as the physical, putting his time in the video room to good use.
“I try to use (film study) every day and apply what I find out in the meeting room to the field,” he said.
There’s been plenty to digest in moving from linebacker to end.
“I’m pretty comfortable at this point. It’s just a matter of you can’t lose focus on the task. You got to go out and get better every day,” Johnson said. “Coach always talks about adding tools to your toolbox. The more tools you have in your toolbox, the better chance you have of getting to the passer.”