Ole Miss had fired Houston Nutt in the fall and hired Hugh Freeze. Nutt coached the final three games of the season before the change was officially made, and the Rebels finished with a 2-10 record. But Johnson hadn’t signed up for a new staff, let alone all the losing. He was looking to get out.
“It was awful. Those last three games were like torture almost,” Johnson said, adding he was 70-30 in favor of leaving. “I have a great relationship with a lot of those coaches, and I didn’t think I’d be here, to be honest with you. I didn’t think I’d be here at Ole Miss.”
Johnson and a handful of others in his freshman class gathered in a dorm room to weigh their futures. Donte Moncrief, who would later become one of the most-productive wide receivers in Ole Miss history and get drafted by the Indianapolis Colts after his junior season, spoke of leaving for Oklahoma State. Denzel Nkemdiche, a freshman All-American in Freeze’s debut season, was thinking Georgia or Florida.
Johnson stayed on after talking with Nutt, who encouraged him to go through spring practices and see how he liked it. If he decided he still wanted to leave, Nutt told Johnson to give him a call and he’d try to get him somewhere.
“It was a pretty rough time,” Rebel safety Chief Brown, one of the few remaining 2011 class members left at Ole Miss, said. “We had players not wanting to go to practice, not wanting to come work out at all. I remember watching the Egg Bowl (a 31-3 MSU win) in disbelief of our players. It was mind-blowing. It was a hard time. I remember all of us freshmen gathering in our dorm room talking about transferring that spring. We didn’t want to be here. Nobody knew who coach Freeze was. I don’t remember who said just give him a chance and he could change our life.”
“I think it’s a process. It takes time and and it takes trust on both sides,” Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. “I never knew C.J. was going to transfer. I’m glad I didn’t. What a cornerstone he’s been for us. I can remember going in there for the first time. It was when they came back from winter break, and (strength and conditioning coach) Paul Jackson had them for the first time. They were out there running. Granted, they’d had four or six weeks off or whatever, but I almost threw up. It was like 'Oh my gosh.' Here we were coming from little Arkansas State, and we had a lot more talent there than what we had here. You could see a few individuals but maybe not enough to play that SEC schedule that you had. I’m really proud of this senior class and the leadership they provided. They brought us through.”
A few players did leave. Former four-star signee Tobias Singleton bolted for Jackson State. T.J. Worthy ended up at Louisiana-Lafayette. For the most part, though, the class - at the time considered among the best Ole Miss had ever signed - remained intact.
Because as the players were gathered together, one player stood up. Collins Moore, now the team’s punt returner, encouraged players to give Freeze a chance. Four years later, Ole Miss is but a few days away from taking on Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl Jan. 1 at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN.
“He’s just one of those type of guys,” Brown said of Freeze. “He’s a really persuasive guy. He’s a guy who has a nice way with words. He’s very encouraging and very motivational. He won our hearts and minds. You just bought into what he said because he’s that type of impactful person to these kids out here. You can tell because if you can take any team that wins two games a year to nine, it’s pretty special. People started believing, and then we started getting the recruits. We’ve got depth. We can play in longer games, we can compete. You look at these last two seasons, some of the games we lost were because of one play, two plays. We can compete with the best of the best of them now. We came from not being able to beat Jacksonville State to beating Alabama now, LSU and those other guys. It’s pretty special.”
It took time for players to buy what Freeze was selling. The spring is when it began to turn, at least for Brown and Johnson.
“I actually bought into everything coach Freeze was telling us,” Johnson said. “It was a point midway through spring practice where I knew we could be really good at this. We just stuck with it, and everybody just stayed so committed to him and everything he was trying to do. The way everybody was competing in practice was something I hadn’t seen throughout the first fall there. It kind of gave you hope that we could be better. There were a lot of leaders on the team and guys like that who were trying to make us stay. That helped out a whole lot.”
“We went through the spring, and we had this drill called Fourth Quarters,” Brown said. “They were these certain amount of drills you had to do four times. We just competed, and people kept competing. I was like ‘Man, this is pretty cool competing like this.’ And we’d just pick each other up and encourage the guys. People started playing out of love for each other and being respectful. Being on time for workouts, going to class and being accountable, he brought all of those things to the program. Accountability and just showing up on time, loving each other. When I was first down here with coach Nutt, nobody really cared about each other. Everybody was out for themselves, individual stats. People were focused on going to the NFL. I remember walking through the locker room and one player said ‘I don’t know about y’all, but I’m here to get this money.’ He said that when I was a freshman, and I was like ‘Wow.’ Now you’ve got players who really love and care about who you are. We spend a lot of team bonding time. We hang out with each other outside of football all the time. We play around on the bus all the time. We’re just a big family now, and when we step out on that field, we’re playing for each other out of love. When you’ve got that out on the field, it’s hard to beat a team like that.”
Mike Hilton signed with Ole Miss in 2012. Ole Miss reached the BBVA Compass Bowl and finished with a 7-6 record that year, including a postseason win that seemed almost unfathomable the year prior.
A lot had to go right to get there. Bo Wallace was productive in his first year as starting quarterback. Nkemdiche went from redshirt reserve to arguably team defensive MVP. An offensive line decimated by recruiting misses and injuries started the same five in all 13 games.
On and on it went. When Freeze landed the heralded class of 2013, which included five-star prospects Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil, Robert Nkemdiche and Tony Conner, the buy-in rate spiked.
“Guys really weren’t into what coach Freeze was talking about, what we were buying into,” Hilton said. “Over these last couple of years, guys have really taken the time to talk to the coaches and talk to coach Freeze, and they believe what he’s preaching. One thing that really stood out to me is when we got that 2013 class in. Just seeing how he was able to go out there and get those type of guys in that short of time span, it really showed me something special was happening. We knew what those guys were capable of, and that was a major turning point in turing this program around. Just seeing how far we’ve come over these last couple of years, and still seeing where this program can go, I feel like with the coaches they have and the players they have they can take it to another level.”
“The biggest difference is what to expect and what the normal was,” Ole Miss defensive end John Youngblood, a 2012 signee, said. “The normal was to be mediocre in practice and hope something good’s going to happen on game day. Now you can really see it in the players and the coaches. They really expect greatness every practice, no matter what. With that, game day is going to take care of itself. The practice habits and the personal accountability has changed drastically. Before it wouldn’t be any different if a bunch of guys showed up late for workouts or they missed. Now maybe once in a blue moon a guy will do that. Really personal accountability and what we demand of each other, and not even really having the coaches involved in that. Player accountability and personal accountability to want to do good and want to be great and not be a mediocre program like it has been.”
Ole Miss is making its fourth-straight bowl appearance for the first time since 1997-2000, making Freeze the first Ole Miss coach to take his team to four-straight bowls since John Vaught. Even more, the Rebels are in the Sugar Bowl for the first time since 1970, their second New Year’s Six bowl appearance in as many seasons. And not since 1961-62 have they strung together back-to-back nine-win regular seasons.
Suffice to say, the success has been unprecedented, and Freeze is showing no signs of stopping. Ole Miss currently boasts a consensus Top 3 recruiting class, headed by five-star quarterback Shea Patterson, five-star offensive lineman Greg Little and four-star defensive lineman Benito Jones.
“It was just very different,” senior safety Trae Elston said. “You could tell with the players some players wanted to buy in, some players didn’t. They weren’t used to that atmosphere. As the years went on, people started buying in and building chemistry with their teammates and doing things with each other. If you build chemistry off the field, it’s going to show on the field.
“This team has bonded the most. We’ve done more things together as a group. Last year was a pretty good team, but this team is the best team we’ve had at Ole Miss.”