The Sack Is Back

With junior DE C.J. Johnson out last year due to injury, the Ole Miss pass rush was weak, to put it kindly. Now, heading into 2014, Johnson is healthy, as are other pass rush options, and the "sack" should be back.

In 2012, the Rebel defense had 38 quarterback sacks for 268 yards in losses for the opposing offense.

In 2013, those numbers were almost cut in half - 20 sacks for 147 yards.

In the '12 season, then sophomore DE C.J. Johnson had 6.5 of the 38 QB "kills." In '13, Johnson, who sustained a broken foot in the season opening win over Vanderbilt and was subsequently lost for the whole season, had - obviously - zero sacks.

"When we lost C.J., and Carlos (Thompson), it changed everything for us," said Rebel Defensive Coordinator Dave Wommack recently. "We had to try to manufacture pressure with some guys who just don't have that skill set.

"That altered a lot of things we wanted to do as a defensive staff and we couldn't be as aggressive as we like to be."

In spring training, with Johnson back in the fold and healthy after his redshirt year, things changed quickly on the defensive front.

"Man, did they change," Wommack said. "While it wasn't just C.J., he was the straw that stirred the drink with our pass rush.

"He and Laremy Tunsil were battling it out every day and I think it made both of them better, but what his return did was change the mindset of how we called things and the mindset of some of the other pass rushers that if C.J. was going to make a play, they were too."

Johnson - one of three players representing Ole Miss at SEC Media Days this week - sat before a group of reporters, dapper in a Navy suit and stylish shirt and tie.

"It was tough sitting out last year," he said, to no one in particular, "but I feel I learned a lot. I wanted to be out there helping my teammates badly, but I couldn't, so I just tried to observe, encourage and learn by watching other defensive ends and offensive tackles.

"Now I'm healthy and am ready to go."

Johnson have been, as they say, working on his craft since coming back in spring.

"When you go up against someone as good as Laremy every day, you better come with some new moves and you better have a whole package of moves and techniques you can rely on," he continued. "He is the best OT I have every played against and in my opinion he is the best in the country.

"Laremy's feet are so good and he gets on you so quickly that he can neutralize you before you can get into a move. Going against him has made me better. When I got a pressure or a sack in spring training, I knew I had done something."

Johnson did not want to reveal his new moves, for tactical reasons, but gave a wry smile when asked.

"I've got a few tricks up my sleeve," he stated.

Johnson has spent his summer doing the usual - trying to get bigger, faster and stronger, but he's also kept a keen eye on continued rehab of his foot.

"My foot is 100%, but I want it to stay that way, so I am still doing all my rehab exercises in addition to the things everyone is doing in the weight room and running," he explained. "I'm not leaving anything to chance this year."

He's very excited about his prospects for 2014, the ability of the "other" pass rushers and the whole Rebel defense.

"I'm only halfway through my career. I have two more years to go, so I have a lot more to prove. I have had a decent career so far, but I can do more and that starts this season," Johnson noted. "We all have something to prove. I know Carlos and Fadol (Brown) and (John) Youngblood and Marquis (Haynes) all want to show they can get to the quarterback too and they all had success in spring. We are fired up about our opportunities.

"And I think our defense can be special. A lot of us have been around a while and know all the plays, we believe we have all the pieces to the puzzle and good depth, we have great chemistry and trust with our coaches and we want to make sure we hold up our end of the bargain. We know the offense is going to score points, so we have to stay focused and do our part."

Even though he didn't get to play last year after the opener, Johnson knew how close the Rebels were to having a banner season.

"We should have beaten Auburn, we should have beaten Texas A&M and we should have beaten State," he said matter-of-factly. "We were right there and let them slip away by losing focus or whatever.

"Our goal this year is to finish those kinds of games and I think we have the players to do it. We just have to stay tuned in for 60 minutes. As coach (Hugh) Freeze says, we have to be relentless."

Johnson was relentless in spring training, a man happy to be back where he always wanted to be, on the field chasing down quarterbacks.

"I can't wait for August and the season. I have grown up and am a better leader now. I'm one of the veterans. I intend to play that way," he closed.

The sack, it appears, is back.

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