Mending Fences

Rishaw Johnson made his way into the banquet room of the indoor practice facility with a smile on his face Monday.

He turned, found his placard, and quickly relaxed into his assigned chair. As interested media surrounded him eager to ask questions, Johnson sat with self-assurance. He was ready to acknowledge his role as an offensive leader, as his head coach, Houston Nutt, made mention of moments earlier.

Johnson has never lacked in confidence.

Rishaw Johnson

His bravado and immense talent were evident early in his career, when the most decorated lineman in school history, Michael Oher, declared the rising junior the next-best-thing following his departure two years ago.

As expected, he opened last season atop the depth chart at right guard. He was finally realizing his potential, elevating his game to new heights in a season filled with expectations. This was the lineman Ole Miss had hoped for, had needed.

Then it happened. For everything Johnson brought talent-wise, he was forfeiting with his attitude. He was soon suspended for roughly half of the season for breaking team rules, leaving a once promising career in serious doubt.

"Everybody makes mistakes. Rishaw made one, he paid for it and now he's back doing everything the right way," Ole Miss offensive line coach Mike Markuson said.

He was reinstated for spring drills. It was ideal timing, too. Ole Miss is replacing three starters along the offensive line, including the right-guard job held by long-tenured guard/tackle John Jerry.

Johnson had changed his outlook, and it was noticeable. He was carrying himself differently. Not only was he the first in line for almost every drill, but he never complained or voiced frustration when Markuson pushed for his best each practice.

"I think, God willing, I'm finally back to living up to the hype that people have been waiting to see," Johnson said Monday. "I just can't wait for this season to start. I can't wait to get out there and compete."

Rishaw Johnson

Johnson has never tried to run from his past mistakes. Instead, he's learning from them. He wants to be a leader now. In what has already become a recurring theme in 2010-11, this is Johnson's redemption story.

"You just try and come back stronger," he said. "People are always watching, so I'm just trying to be a leader and trying to do the right thing for the younger guys. But people are always watching. I'm trying to be a leader for those guys."

A.J. Hawkins, vying to become the team's starting center this season, recalls the old Johnson – a charismatic talent who sought to be one of the best offensive linemen to ever step foot on campus.

When Hawkins visited Ole Miss on an official visit, Johnson was his host. And the two formed a friendship that continues today.

"I've always seen he could be one of the best offensive linemen in this league," Hawkins said. "He got dismissed for a period of time, but when he came back, he told me how hungry he was. He proved it over the spring and the summer.

"He's really stepped up. You notice that a lot of people left off the offensive line. He's been stepping up to be one of the leaders for the offense."

Markuson can tell a difference, as well. He still pushes Johnson to get better, but he always will. But Johnson wants it for himself. He's out to prove his worth. It's the inner want-to long missing in the 6-foot-4, 305-pounder.

"The light's come on," Markuson said. "He's a decent fundamental football player. He's physical. That's what you want, and he's a very explosive guy.

Rishaw Johnson

"He knows this football team needs him. For us to be good up front, he needs to have a great year for us. He's doing well. We just have to keep working on fundamentals and technique."

Johnson is a needed commodity for an offensive line lacking experience in its interior. As if he needed more motivation, the pariah-turned-leader has heard the rumblings of the offensive line being the team's weakest link.

He won't accept it.

"On this team, we don't want no weak leaks. And we definitely don't want the offensive line to be a weak link," he said.

"We all look at it up front as all of us not wanting to be that weak link. When Coach Nutt said the offensive line keeps him up, we take it personal. We don't want to be the weak link on the team. We take it to work every day."

And it starts with Rishaw.

"He could be really good," Markuson said. "But that remains to be seen. We've just got to see what he does in those games and how he performs. Is he blocking the right guy? Is he doing everything we ask him to do in regards to doing the right thing?

"We'll see."

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