The Rebels finished 5-7 in 2016. Their defense was a big reason why. Ole Miss allowed 408 points in total (the most under head coach Hugh Freeze) and the second-most points in the past 50 years of the program.
Linebacker play was an issue, if not THE issue. The Rebels started eight different players at its two linebacker positions with little to show for their efforts outside of DeMarquis Gates, who led the team with 79 tackles. But Gates had his issues, too, from missed assignments to a suspension for on and off-the-field issues.
Put simply, Johnston could see the field early and often. And he’s factoring in playing time as he weighs the pitches of his seven finalists: Ole Miss, Arkansas, Iowa, LSU, Mississippi State and Arizona State.
“They’re really not that far behind,” Johnston said of Ole Miss. “Just knowing that they need linebackers that bad says a lot. I do want the opportunity to play early. They’re not too far behind.”
Johnston said Ole Miss coordinator of recruiting development Lee Wilbanks — on the road as the Rebel coaching staff goes through transition — was in his home last week. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Johnston is currently in Montgomery, Ala., to participate in the Alabama - Mississippi All-State Game.
Johnston Wilbanks and the Rebels really ramped up their pursuit of the Spanish Fort, Ala., product the summer. The relationship has only steadily built from there. Johnston is rated the No. 259 overall prospect in the country by Scout.com and the No. 10 inside linebacker.
“He was just touching on how they need linebackers,” Johnston said of the recent meeting with Wilbanks. “I looked into that and I hope to get an official set. Coach Wilbanks has been recruiting me since the middle of the summer and he’s been coming on stronger and stronger and they’re trying to get me to campus. I’ve got to find time to get up there.”
Ole Miss is in search of a new defensive coordinator following the retirement of Dave Wommack. Johnston said the Rebel coaching staff “haven’t said anything yet” to him about who could Wommack’s replacement. Johnston is planning to visit Ole Miss, Arizona State and LSU officially in January.
Johnston isn’t as highly-ranked as some of his team Alabama teammates, but he said he’s not worried about stars or the like. He’s thankful for the opportunity to continue his football career at the next level, and he has no shortage of options.
“I don’t want to complain,” Johnston said. “I just want to thank God for blessing me with the ability to play the game at the next level. I’m really not worried about the rankings and the ratings. I’m just thankful I get another opportunity.”