OXFORD, Miss. – The feeling is euphoric for Ole Miss defensive end C.J. Johnson. Rarely does he find something that makes him so happy, even giddy on the football field.
“There’s no better feeling than hitting a quarterback,” Johnson says with a hearty laugh. “It’s like the ultimate feeling. It’s way harder than it looks. To finally be able to get back there and when you’re doing it consistently is really fun.”
Sitting in an Ole Miss dining hall, devouring two pieces of seared tilapia and a small green salad, Johnson smiles wide as he thinks about all the times he’s barreled into a quarterback. You’d like to think he’s salivating over the food he’s cramming into his mouth, but it’s obvious it’s from the thought of plowing into his next victim.
After all, it has been a while since Johnson really felt the thrill of hitting a quarterback. Spring practice allowed him the opportunity, but it’s different when it’s one of your own. After a serious leg injury cost him most of his 2013 season, Johnson is ecstatic about getting back to what he’s good at.
“It’s kinda weird because it feels like just yesterday I was just getting here and now I’m one of the leaders of this team and being a heavy contributor,” Johnson said. “I’m really just trying to cherish it. Time has flown by so fast.”
Last year, it seemed to slow down at times for Johnson. After breaking his right fibula in spring practice, Johnson played in just four games before undergoing surgery again after the explosion he was used to having disappeared. Johnson said there was no re-injury, but that he didn’t have the same push off the line and felt his leg just needed to be “fixed.”
During those four games, Johnson didn’t record a sack after leading the Rebels with 6.5 sacks the year prior. While Johnson didn’t make the same sort of impact the team was accustomed to, coach Hugh Freeze said losing him for most of the season drained the Rebels.
“You talk about leaders. That should be the first name out of my mouth for the defense,” Freeze said. “They follow him.
“When we lost him last year, our team changed.”
Where it really changed was how Ole Miss got to the quarterback. In 2012, the Rebels led the SEC with 103 tackles for loss and ranked second in the league with 38 sacks. Last season, the Rebels were third with 88 tackles for loss, but tied for 12th with 19 sacks.
Now, Johnson wasn’t going to grab 20 sacks last year, but at 100 percent he would have made his own handful of plays in one-on-one situations and helped create plays for his teammates.
“C.J. Johnson changes our defense,” Freeze said.
However, instead of making plays or helping, Johnson was hauling crutches around for a month when he wasn’t finishing Season 4 of “Sons of Anarchy” and four seasons of “White Collar” on Netflix. He hobbled around on a scooter for a while and had moments of pity.
But after a month of sulking, Johnson returned to the field as a cheerleader and got back into the gym, starting with his upper body.
Gradually, he worked his way into strengthening his legs and jogging. Soon, he was running on an underwater treadmill, which made him feel like he could deliver a 4.3-second 40-yard dash when he got out.
“It was basically either sit at home, or be here,” Johnson said. “I felt like I should be here.”
Once winter workouts rolled around, Johnson was 100 percent, he said. And spring practice brought back the contact he craved. While there was a little soreness at times, Johnson said he was never tentative on his leg. He played like nothing was ever wrong.
“I’ve never been one of the hesitant ones on the football field,” he said. “I don’t care if I have a broken leg; if I’m out there, I’m going to try and go 100 percent.
“It felt good just to be back out there after not playing for so long and doing something that I love. That’s what really made it feel good.”
This spring, Johnson felt rejuvenated on the football field after so much time away from being himself. He hopes it’s a bit of foreshadowing for the fall.
With a team that has a chance to make some real noise in the SEC West this fall, the defense needs more of an edge. With Johnson flying around, the Rebels should get exactly that.
“Just being out there and knowing that I can bring that confidence to make the quarterback get the ball out and help guys get to the quarterback and cause turnovers [can] make us a better defense,” he said.