And not a moment too soon.
Johnson suffered a torn meniscus in Ole Miss’ 38-10 loss to Florida three weeks ago. The Rebels are 1-1 without him, including a disappointing setback at Memphis last week when they allowed 491 total yards.
Ole Miss has started junior college transfer Terry Caldwell in his place. However, Caldwell is in his first season, while Johnson is the team’s elder statesman with 45 career games played. Not to mention he’s the Rebels’ unquestioned emotional leader.
“I don’t know how many reps, but I hope it’s a bunch,” Freeze said of Johnson's expected workload. “And I don’t think it’ll be because of his knee, it’s just he hasn’t been able to condition game-like conditioning. He’s looked good both days in practice, though. We’ve managed his reps a bit. It’s good to have him back running around. Between him, Issac (Gross) and Tony (Conner), that vocal leadership, somebody who’s been through those battles when things aren’t going your way, it’s good to have him out there.”
Ole Miss has struggled defensively over the last few weeks, especially on third down. Memphis converted 12 of 20 third downs against the Rebels.
Freeze said there are a number of factors that have played into the decline in production for a defense that ranked first in the country in scoring defense last season, one being the loss of invaluable depth players such as reserve defensive back Cliff Coleman and linebackers Keith Lewis and Serderius Bryant.
“Defensively, the confidence has been shaken, particularly on the back end. They have to get that confidence and that swagger back a little bit,” Freeze said. “We’ve spent time this week preaching that. They’ve had good energy. They’re playing against a very talented squad.
“You’re playing against really good offenses in this day and time, and everybody does a lot of stuff. You start thinking about guys like Cliff Coleman who didn’t get a lot of praise, but the guy had a spring and two years in the system and knew what to do and how to play. Not to mention the others we lost. We’re playing a lot of kids back there right now. They seem to have confidence in the plan. They need something good to happen to them early.”
Of Ole Miss’ listed starters in its back seven, two are junior college transfers (Caldwell and cornerback Tony Bridges), while two others are true sophomores (Ken Webster and C.J. Hampton) who are getting their first real taste of SEC football.
“They were around us for so long and our system,” Freeze said of Coleman, Lewis, et al. “Now some of these kids are playing for their first time, really. Your confidence gets shaken sometimes when things aren’t going well, particularly if you listen to the things that are being said or that go on out there. That’s a battle within the mind, and then we’re constantly trying to battle for them. Hopefully something good will happen to our guys early on.”
Ole Miss (5-2, 2-1 SEC) will certainly be tested Saturday. The Rebels are set to host Texas A&M (5-1, 2-1) at 6 p.m. The Aggies are coming off their first loss of the season with a 41-23 defeat at home to Alabama.
The A&M defense, led by defensive end Myles Garrett, tops the SEC in sacks (3.33 per game) and tackles for loss (9.5 per game). They rank top-10 nationally in both categories, with Garrett coming in at No. 2 in the nation in sacks (1.42 per game) and No. 5 in tackles for loss (1.9 per game).
Ole Miss does finally have Laremy Tunsil on its side. Tunsil sat out the first seven games of the season due to an NCAA suspension.
“You’re talking about two of the best players in the nation,” Freeze said. “They’ll test each other, and both will win some battles. When you play against two caliber guys like that, that’ll be a good match. We believe that Tunsil is going to win his share. I’m sure there will be times Garrett wins his share, too.”
Freeze said he isn’t worried about any rust for Tunsil, though conditioning when the team gets into tempo could be a little bit of an issue.
“He’s been conditioning, he just hasn’t been conditioning getting tempo snaps - a 12-play drive, so to speak. If we have one of those, I don’t think there’s any way you can adequately prepare him for that,” he said.
“That’ll be the biggest test, but he’s been conditioning all along. I don’t think there’ll be a lot of rust as far as technique, but again, if we get one of those long drives - particularly if we’re going tempo - that’ll test him, for sure.”
Tunsil will anchor a somewhat new-look Ole Miss offensive line. Fahn Cooper has shifted back to his customary right tackle spot, and Justin Bell has moved from guard to center. Ole Miss will employ Javon Patterson/Aaron Morris and Rod Taylor/Jordan Sims at left and right guard, respectively.
“Been pleased,” Freeze said of the practice week. “Obviously we’re not going live right now. Laremy’s obviously very talented, and Fahn’s back to his natural, more comfortable position. Bell gets to go to center now with Ben (Still), and we’ve got our guards there. With the exception of (Robert) Conyers, we’re kind of back to where we originally started.”
But in the end, whether Ole Miss rights the ship and gets back on course to contention for an SEC championship is dependent on how the team responds with its back now firmly against the wall.
And it comes down to leadership.
“I think we have some very good leaders,” Freeze said. “I think when you talk about the locker room in general you have to have people who are not only willing to lead, but people who are willing to do it the right way and do the right things and maintain your confidence through difficult times. All of that is a combination. I think C.J. Johnson, Evan Engram, Mike Hilton, Justin Bell and those guys have been really good leaders.”
* Lost in the misery of Memphis was, as Freeze put it, the “solid” play of senior wide receiver Collins Moore as the punt returner. It looks like Moore has found a role. “I was fired up for Collins,” Freeze said. “That’s a guy who wants to contribute, and he’s a team guy. He’ll be doing it again this Saturday. I’m excited for him, and I trust him back there. Happy for him. He’s got a role that can help us.”
* Freeze said Conner “looked better this week” but the preseason All-American isn’t ready to go for Texas A&M. Will he return this year? Freeze was unsurprisingly non-committal. “I don’t know. I really try not to speculate on those things. I talked to him yesterday. He definitely feels better. I think they’re going to try to go back to running him next week, and we’ll see the reaction of the knee.”
* On the positive side injury-wise, senior safety Trae Elston is good to go after getting banged up in the Memphis loss. Elston, like junior defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, has gone through concussion protocol. Nkemdiche will undergo another series of tests tomorrow morning before his playing status is determined.
* Eugene Brazley hasn’t had his name called in meaningful situations yet, but that hasn’t stopped the coaching staff from praising the job he’s done when given an opportunity. Take running backs coach Derrick Nix, for example. “When he’s getting an opportunity to get into the game, a lot of them has been late in the ballgame, but he has come on the scene and taken advantage of every opportunity. He’s had some nice 70-yard runs, 60-yard runs and shown some good vision. Just took the opportunity and made the most of it.” But will that translate into more snaps? Stay tuned.
* Speaking of Nix, he had some interesting things to say about the Rebels’ attitude towards practice this week. “I think the guys starting on Sunday they almost wish we came out here and had a full padded practice. That was the attitude with not being satisfied with the way they performed on Saturday, wanting to get that taste out of their mouth, go out and execute, do things the proper way.”