Joshua McCoy/Ole Miss Athletics

Cooper Johnson's Time Out of the Lineup Provided Perspective

When Ole Miss freshman catcher Cooper Johnson was briefly taken out of the lineup earlier this season, it was the first time in his young baseball career he'd endured such a struggle.

The two week period that he was out of the lineup and on the bench was not easy for him to swallow, but it provided him with some perspective, as well as time to reflect.

"Spending couple of weeks out of the lineup gave me a chance to sit back and look at the game from a different perspective," Johnson said. "I realized it's a game I've been playing my whole life. I think I was I was making it tougher on myself than I should have been."

Johnson was one of the center pieces of a historic recruiting class that arrived on campus last summer. All of them were stars in high school and any other team they had played on to that point in their lives. Struggling wasn't something Johnson was used to. It was known that the Chicago native's defense is what shined brightest, and that his production at the plate would be a work in progress. But a nasty 7-51 slump to begin his freshman campaign was too big of a liability for his defense to compensate for, and he was replaced by Nick Fortes, who has swung the bat well all season.

"It was definitely a struggle for sure. But once you go through that, it humbles you," Johnson said. "It is about the team winning. The best players are put in the lineup that Coach B and the rest of the coaching staff think gives them a chance to win. I think we all respect that and understand."

It was discouraging and often frustrating to be confined to the bench after being named an opening day stater as a true freshman. Johnson didn't let that get to him. He went to work. The time away allowed for his sole focus to be on his swing, because at the time there wasn't much else to worry about.

"I just got a chance to work really hard every day on my swing, shorten it up," Johnson said. "That's really been the main focus."

His time soon came again. The Monday after the Rebels dropped two of three to LSU in Baton Rouge, Mike Bianco had an idea that would incorporate Johnson back into the lineup and shore up the team's defensive struggles at first base. He asked Fortes to slip on a first baseman's mitt. The move, if it worked, would keep Fortes' bat in the lineup as well as insert Johnson's defense back behind the plate, a particularly valuable asset with the SEC leader in stolen bases coming to town that weekend in Missouri. 

Not only has the move served it's purpose, but also shed light on the strides Johnson made at the plate during the two-week hiatus. He's 7-24 since he's returned, a small sample size but good for an encouraging .291 average since he was re-inserted. He's doubled his season hit total in eight games, a welcomed sight to what has been a stagnant bottom portion of the Ole Miss order.

"He's playing really well," Bianco said. "Not only the hits, but the defense is superb. I think he is feeling better. He's playing a lot better, and when you do that you feel a lot better at the plate and get some better swings off."

There's less going on in Johnson's swing now than earlier in the season. It is compact and quieter. But above all else, the renewed sense of confidence that has come with more success at the plate has boosted him more than anything. 

"I think honestly just shortening the swing was a big thing," Johnson said. "Making it less busy, but really going up there with more confidence. I have more of a 'I am going to hit this ball, rather than I hope I hit this ball' mentality. You can work on mechanics, but I feel like hitting is so mental and so much about confidence."

Moving Fortes to first base was a two-part transition in a sense. It's paid off on both fronts. Fortes has played a respectable first base in the field, and Johnson has improved at the plate, and his defense has been as good as ever. It's a move that's solidified the Rebels' lineup. The team has won a couple of SEC series since, and is trending upward in a critical point in the season.

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