Starting Role

Based on his fall and offseason work, Sean Johnson has emerged as the third weekend starter as the Rebels head toward the season opener two weeks from Friday.

Christian Trent is set to go on Friday, while Johnson is the likely guy on Saturday and Sam Smith on Sunday. Or the latter two could go in reverse order.

The 6-foot-7, 210-pound, hard-throwing right-handed pitcher, said he’s adjusted to life in Division I baseball so far, after a run in the juco ranks up north.

“It’s a completely new atmosphere, and I’m excited to get on the mound,” said the Iowa Western Community College product who hails from Durango, Colo.’s Fountain Valley High School. “It wasn’t a huge transition. Iowa Western is a very good junior college program. But it was definitely a step up in competition.”

Iowa Western is indeed good, and another pitcher from there, junior RHP Drake Robison, is also on the Ole Miss roster this season. When Ole Miss was in Omaha for the College World Series, Iowa Western was in Johnson’s home state at the Junior College World Series. That’s held in Grand Junction, Colo.

So from one World Series program to another, Johnson is pleased with his game heading into the season.

“I felt like I did very well,” he said of his fall. “It started out a little rough, but then I got used to what I was doing. I felt like I was doing well toward the end of the fall.”

Even as successful as his junior college team was, Johnson said there are adjustments to this level of college baseball.

“The biggest difference is just getting guys out, striking guys out in 1-2 and 0-2 counts,” he said. “Guys are a lot better at protecting the plate than they are in junior college. So striking out guys is a lot harder. There’s no doubt about that.”

Johnson has multiple pitches to throw to opposing batters.

“I work my fast ball in and out off the plate. I work off that, and that’s very hard to do. Spotting up your fast ball and just working through guys’ hands. That’s not easy to do. I work my pitches off the fast ball well. I’m about 91-92.

“I also have a cutter, a curve ball and a changeup. My changeup wasn’t working as well throughout the fall. But I’d say my changeup became a very good pitch that I’m going to be able to use this spring.”

Johnson, who also considered Louisville, Baylor, Oklahoma, Penn State, and others, said heading to this part of the country was the plan all along.

“I wanted to get south and get to some warm weather, see how my arm did in warm weather compared to cold weather,” he said. “I wanted to play in the SEC.”

He’s joining a talented staff and is pleased to have emerged as one of the weekenders, at least at this point.

“Our pitching staff is very good this year," said Johnson, who threw 75 innings as a juco sophomore in 2014, going 10-1 with 88 strikeouts and 16 walks. “I think we’re going to be able to hold our own in the SEC. We’ve got Christian Trent and Sam Smith coming back. Both of them are very experienced in the SEC. Drake Robison is from Iowa Western as well. I think he’s going to be a big part of what we do here.”

Johnson brings a toughness to the pitching staff that Ole Miss fans saw last year from their team. He was a four-year hockey letterman in high school. Rebel head coach Mike Bianco said Johnson is everything they thought he’d be.

“It’s good when you recruit a kid and it turns out like you expect immediately. A lot of times it doesn’t happen that quickly,” he said. “Super talented. A 6-7 right-handed pitcher who should pitch on the weekends here. He’s a guy that throws four pitches into the strike zone. Really mature. Good student. Really he’s the whole package. He was one of the best guys (in the fall).”

Bianco said, along with Trent, Smith, and Johnson, there are some others right on the cusp of challenging for a weekend start or certainly a midweek start.

“I feel good about it. I think there are other guys like (Brady) Bramlett and (Evan) Anderson and (Jacob) Waguespack who will push to get into that. It can change, and it could change even before Feb. 13. If not, it could even change later. But I do feel good about it.”

Bianco said that unless all three starters return in any given season, which is rare, there will always be questions until pitchers prove themselves on the field of competition.

“Last year we were asked ‘Is Chris Ellis going to be good enough?’ and ‘Who is this Trent guy?’ Things like that,” Bianco said. “Those guys threw the entire season. Trent was undefeated last year and pitched No. 2 in the rotation. (Sam) Smith pitched No. 3 and had a terrific year. By the time this season ends, he’ll have as many SEC starts as probably anybody ever in this program. And now we have a talented kid in Sean Johnson.”

Since Johnson didn’t get a chance to go to Omaha last year due to his own team still playing, he wants to make sure to get there this season – with the Ole Miss Rebels.

“I had actually been to Omaha the previous year,” Johnson said. “The atmosphere is absolutely insane there. I’d love to get back.”

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