SEC: C.J. Johnson

It’s not that Ole Miss had a terrible season last year. The Rebs, under coach Hugh Freeze, won eight games for the first time since 2009. Freeze admittedly was pleasantly surprised by how far the program had come since he took over following a 2-10 season in 2011. To anyone who’d ask, he’d say that he thought the process of fielding a competitive football team in the SEC would have taken longer.

Recruiting will do that for you.

Freeze changed the mentality of Ole Miss football in the blink of an eye. That day was Feb. 6, 2013, when the program’s news release -- “Ole Miss Lands Historic Signing Class -- was, for once, not an overstatement. Eleven All-Americans headlined the class, including the No. 1 overall prospect, Robert Nkemdiche. All told, Freeze signed four recruits who were considered the best prospects at their position, according to ESPN.

Relying heavily on freshmen such as Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss began the 2013 season on a tear, beating both Vanderbilt and Texas on the road. Losses at Alabama and Auburn weren’t altogether unexpected, and when the Rebs returned home, they beat No. 6-ranked LSU in dramatic fashion.

[+] EnlargeRobert Nkemdiche
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsWith a year of experience under their belts, Robert Nkemdiche and the rest of Ole Miss' sterling sophomore class should be much improved.
But somewhere along the way, things changed. After reeling off five victories in a row, Ole Miss began to falter, losing two in a row to Missouri and Mississippi State.

Dropping the Egg Bowl in overtime was particularly painful. Freeze would look at the film each Sunday and see mental and physical breakdowns from his players. The level of consistency wasn’t there.

“We just didn’t play as crisp,” he said.

They lost to Missouri because they drove into the red zone three times and couldn’t punch it in. They lost to Ole Miss because Bo Wallace was on his way into the end zone and had the football punched from his grasp.

“You could see kids making some mistakes they didn’t make earlier in the year,” Freeze said.

Freeze looked in the mirror and decided, “I have to look at what I do.”

“We weren’t the same,” Freeze said. “Now we lost C.J. Johnson, Aaron Morris, Evan Engram, Charles Sawyer, Denzel [Nkemdiche], Robert [Nkemdiche]. We lost five games. But for whatever reason we weren’t the same. We think part of it was the mental fatigue.

“Year 2, I expect them to handle that much better.”

It isn’t just that Wallace’s shoulder has finally recovered. It isn’t even that those sidelined players are back. Freeze believes Year 2 will be different because that much-talked-about signing class from 2013 is more mature. The growing pains those freshmen went through last season should make them better prepared as sophomores.

“Those young kids, as many as we played, physically, you would look at them and say, ‘They look the part,’” Freeze said. “But mentally it took a toll on them. We played four out of the first five [games] on the road. Every one of them was 7 or 8 p.m. kickoffs. We’re getting back at 4 a.m., and those high school kids, that’s a new world for them.”

This season’s schedule is more favorable, with four of the first seven games in Oxford, Mississippi. And if that’s not enough, Freeze is considering altering his weekly schedule after the fatigue he saw last season, whether that means changing practice times or taking Sundays off entirely. If Ole Miss wants to be a contender in the SEC West, keeping consistent throughout the season is a must.

“I assure you that I’ll be looking at it,” he said. “Last year I had blinders and was saying, ‘Let’s get ready for the next one.’ I didn’t think about, ‘Hey, somewhere in here they’ve lost 2-3 days.’ When you get back at 4 a.m. for five straight weeks, that’s part of my learning curve.”

For the players’ part, they’re taking some of the onus on themselves.

“I’ve never seen since I’ve been here people getting extra work on their own, going out and doing cone drills and things like that,” Wallace said. “I think everyone is ready to go.”

Veteran defensive end C.J. Johnson said the way last season ended should be motivation enough.

“It was kind of taking a toll on everybody because we had been through so much as a football team: a close loss at Auburn, a close loss at A&M, the Alabama game was a lot closer than the score was,” he said. “So, you know, going through all that physical grind and then to drop the Egg Bowl the way we did, I think it kind of pushed a couple of guys.”

The hard part isn’t pushing through fall camp, though. For Ole Miss, the real test will come when they realize they’ve pushed enough. After all, you can’t go anywhere without ample gas in the tank.
Now that we've taken the time to look at offensive players who could pile on the stats in 2014, it's time to take a look at the defenders who make this league so scary.

Today, we're talking sacks and who could reach double digits in that category in 2014.

Last year, the SEC only had two players reach that mark -- Missouri's Michael Sam (11.5 sacks) and Auburn's Dee Ford (10.5) -- after three did in 2012 and 2011.

This season, the SEC has a lot of talent and potential within its various front sevens. So how many players do I see reaching 10 or more sacks? I'm going to go with three.

Here's my list of potential double-digit sack artists for 2014:

[+] EnlargeLeonard Floyd
Jeffrey Vest/Icon SMIGeorgia linebacker Leonard Floyd is looking to build off of his strong freshman season.
1. Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia: During his first year at Georgia, Floyd led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks and was second with 22 QB hurries. He explodes off the line and is a beast for linemen to handle. He could be the SEC's best pass-rusher in 2014.

2. Markus Golden, DE, Missouri: Overshadowed by Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, Golden had 6.5 sacks last year. Even as a backup, Golden could have left for the NFL after last season. He's back, and he won't be fun to deal with off the edge.

3. Alvin "Bud" Dupree, DE, Kentucky: Get used to this name because he's gotten better each year he's been on campus. After moving to defensive end last year, Dupree had a team-high seven sacks, but feels his game is even better this time around. He has All-SEC written all over him.

4. Dante Fowler Jr., DE/LB, Florida: He can play with his hand in the ground or upright. Fowler can absolutely fly and has tremendous strength to bully his way through opposing lines. Expect him to vastly improve on the 3.5 sacks he had last year.

5. Shane Ray, DE, Missouri: He might not have a very recognizable name right now, but you should hear a lot about Ray in the coming months. He's incredibly fast and athletic. Add his strength, and he'll have no problem zipping past his 4.5 sacks from 2013.

6. Trey Flowers, DE, Arkansas: He'd be higher on the list if there weren't questions about the guys around him. Flowers is a monster, but he had the benefit of working with stud Chris Smith on the other side. He'll have to work even harder this year. Still, Flowers is too good not to at least approach the five sacks he had last season.

7. C.J. Johnson, DE, Ole Miss: A devastating leg injury cost him most of his 2013 season, but he's back and says he feels better than ever. He changes Ole Miss' defense so much when he's on the field and is the Rebels' best pass-rusher. With people keying in on Robert Nkemdiche inside, Johnson should be a menace off the edge.

8. Curt Maggitt, DE/LB, Tennessee: He might not have played last year, but Maggitt is arguably one of the best at his position. He'll play more defensive end this year, but his goal every time he's on the field is to hit the quarterback. If he can stay healthy, he'll do that a lot.

9. Danielle Hunter, DE, LSU: He only had three sacks last year, but Hunter could be a breakout star for the Tigers. Pictures of him from this summer tell me that he's loaded up on the lean protein and hopes to dine on quarterbacks this fall.

10. Caleb Azubike, LB, Vanderbilt: One of Vandy's most athletic defenders, Azubike seems to really be taking to his new position at outside linebacker. With his speed, he could be a terror outside in the Commodores' new 3-4 scheme. He had four sacks in 2013.
HOOVER, Ala. -- It wasn't a surprise to see Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper selected as first-team All-SEC by the media Thursday. He led all wide receivers in points, and his 282 points were the most received by any player at any position.

“Never have I seen a player like Amari,” teammate Landon Collins said when asked about Cooper. “Not even playing in Louisiana when I was a recruit coming up.”

Cooper battled injuries throughout the 2013 season but still finished with 736 yards receiving and four touchdowns. He's healthy now and primed for a big season.

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell, Deshazor Everett
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesLaquon Treadwell caught 72 passes for 608 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman at Ole Miss.
However, there's another wide receiver in the conference, Ole Miss sophomore Laquon Treadwell, who is hoping to follow in the same footsteps and make that jump to elite status. He was actually left off the media's first-team offense despite a freshman season in which he was third in the SEC in receptions (72) and had 608 yards receiving with five touchdowns. If you ask his teammates, they'll tell you Treadwell is just as good, if not better, than Cooper.

“Amari Cooper is fast,” Rebels safety Cody Prewitt said. “But if I were going to go up in a jump ball against both of them, I'd rather do it against Amari because Laquon is a big body. He's a really good receiver. To be as big as he is, it's amazing to watch him run because he still runs like a deer at 230.”

“Oh absolutely Quon,” Rebels defensive end C.J. Johnson said. “He's a freak physically. I think him being able to impose his will over people -- he's so big, he's gotten bigger since last year -- you can just imagine what that's like.”

When Treadwell first arrived in Oxford, Mississippi, he was 195 pounds. Now, a year later, he's closer to 220 pounds. He looks more like former Ole Miss wide receiver Donte Moncrief, now a member of the Indianapolis Colts, which is fitting considering he'll be moving outside and filling the role once occupied by Moncrief.

Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace went one step further and compared Treadwell to Dallas Cowboys star Dez Bryant.

“I don't like to compare anybody -- you get in trouble when you compare people -- but he's that type of player,” Wallace said.

Treadwell, a former ESPN 300 prospect who was ranked No. 1 at his position, was part of the star-studded recruiting class head coach Hugh Freeze and his staff put together in 2013. Freeze remains high on the players in that class, Treadwell in particular, as they enter their second year with Ole Miss.

“I couldn't be more pleased with the leadership of that class,” Freeze said. “[Laquon] really takes serious his role of being a leader on the offensive side of the football. He's a physical specimen. He's a blocking machine. His hands are really good. I'm really excited to see what Laquon is going to do this year.”

Maybe Treadwell isn't on Cooper's level just yet, but even Collins remembers facing No. 1 on Ole Miss from last year's game.

“Laquon is very talented, very gifted,” Collins said. “I see that when he plays against other teams. I saw that when he played against us -- he made some spectacular plays."
We continue our "most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. Today, we take a look at Ole Miss.

Most important game: Nov. 1 vs Auburn

Key players: Every time you think about this Ole Miss team, you usually always come back to quarterback Bo Wallace. He's had his issues with injury and inconsistency since he arrived in Oxford. But he and Ole Miss' staff are hoping this season is different. For the first time in years, Wallace's shoulder isn't bothering him, which should help with the velocity and accuracy of his passes. Against a very athletic Auburn front, Wallace will have to be at his best when it comes to managing plays out of the backfield.

What will help him is the fact that he has one of the SEC's freakiest athletes at wide receiver in sophomore Laquon Treadwell. With Donte Moncrief gone, Treadwell will have even more on his plate. The good news is that the's more than capable of dealing with all that responsibility and attention. After all, he led Ole Miss with 72 receptions last year. Treadwell won't be on his own, though.

Keep an eye on receivers Vince Sanders and Quincy Adeboyejo; Hugh Freeze believes they could have breakout seasons this fall. Add in tight end Evan Engram, and the Rebels should have a formidable passing attack against a more seasoned secondary.

One way to make sure that passing game goes well is for left tackle Laremy Tunsil to protect Wallace. Whether Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson is healthy or not might not matter with the talent the Tigers have up front, so Tunsil will be pretty busy. So will defensive end C.J. Johnson, who brings back the pass-rushing dynamic the Rebels lost when he left last season with a season-ending leg injury. If you want to stop Auburn's offense, you have to get to the quarterback and disrupt the zone-read. That will be Johnson's job.

Containing Auburn's running backs will be very important, too, meaning defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche will have to clog things up front, and safety Cody Prewitt will have to play more in the box, while also watching quarterback Nick Marshall's arm. He should get help from fellow safeties Trae Elston and Tony Conner in that department, along with linebacker Serderius Bryant, who can act like a spy against Marshall.

Why it matters: Freeze said this spring that he didn't think he'd be prepared to talk about bowl games until his third year with the Rebels. Well, that went out the window when he took Ole Miss bowling in his first year. He did it again last year, and now has even higher expectations in Year 3. Ole Miss has some depth issues along its offensive line and at receiver, but there is enough overall talent for the Rebels to make a legitimate run at the SEC West title. That's why getting a victory over reigning SEC champ Auburn is so important. If the Rebels are going to take that next step as a program, they need a win like this. Take down one of the big boys and you'll get real respect in this league. A win such as could unload momentum for the Rebels and it will be crucial for their race in the West.
It’s never too early to look ahead.

The 2014 NFL draft is over. It’s dead to us already. On to 2015.

The SEC had the first pick (Jadeveon Clowney), the most intriguing pick (Johnny Manziel), the most talked-about pick (AJ McCarron) and the most historically significant pick (Michael Sam) in the entire draft this year. The league even had the most overall picks with 49.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAmari Cooper could be a coveted WR for the 2015 NFL draft.
What will it do for an encore in 2015? While it’s hard to imagine SEC players dominating headlines in quite the same way, the league will undoubtably have a strong contingent of players drafted.

With that in mind, the SEC Blog decided to project next year’s top 20 NFL draft prospects. Edward Aschoff picked his 10 from the East earlier. Now it’s time for 10 from the West to keep an eye on, in alphabetical order:

  • La’el Collins, OL, LSU: Collins very well could have skipped school, entered the draft and been taken anywhere from the second to fourth round. But he chose to return to school, which could pay huge dividends if he improves his pass blocking. Already a known road-grader in the running game, he’ll benefit from the versatility to play either guard or tackle.
  • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: He’ll make plays in the passing game. He’ll make plays at the line of scrimmage. And just in case you want an immediate return, he’ll make plays in special teams. The former five-star prospect showed his all-around game this past season with 70 tackles, eight passes defended, four tackles for loss and two interceptions. With a big junior season, his stock could soar.
  • Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: He is silky smooth on the football field. But don’t let that fool you; he’s got all the moves. At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he can run in the 4.3-second range. He can go get the ball in traffic and has come up big in clutch situations. With his nifty footwork, he’ll remind some of Colts wideout Reggie Wayne.
  • Trey Flowers, DE, Arkansas: A third-round grade from the NFL draft board wasn’t enough to get Flowers to leave school early. After racking up 13.5 tackles for loss and five sacks last season, he returns to Fayetteville with the opportunity to improve upon those numbers. Strong, quick and well-built at 6-foot-4 and 244 pounds, he could turn heads in 2014.
  • C.J. Johnson, DE, Ole Miss: This one might come as a bit of a surprise after he missed more than half of last season to an injury. But the NFL clearly loves pass rushers (23 defensive ends were drafted this year), and Johnson is one of the best in the SEC. He has that quick first step scouts covet. If he can show he’s athletic enough to play both defensive end and outside linebacker, he could make himself attractive to several NFL teams.
  • Bernardrick McKinney, ILB, Mississippi State: The tape doesn't lie. McKinney has been a tackling machine for two years now. He could have entered this year’s draft, but stayed. If Mississippi State makes a run this year, he’ll get noticed. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, he can run in the 4.6 range, which will catch scouts’ eyes.
  • Jalen Mills, DB, LSU: You just know the Tigers are going to produce an NFL defensive back, and Mills has all the tools to develop into that guy. The former Freshman All-American has played both cornerback and safety, which will help him at the next level.
  • Cedric Ogbuehi, OL, Texas A&M: It will look familiar -- another Aggies offensive lineman going in the first round of the NFL draft, and Ogbuehi has all the tools to do it. He has played guard and right tackle already, but this year will star at the big-money position of left tackle.
  • Gabe Wright, DL, Auburn: It’s easy to forget that Wright was once a top-30 prospect in the country. Playing in the interior of the defensive line can get you lost. But with a big season, we could see Wright catch the attention of scouts and make a Dee Ford-like rise up draft boards.
  • T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama: It’s not a good time to be a running back coming out of college. And leaving early seems strange, but after all the carries Yeldon has racked up and the pressure behind him on the depth chart, it might be time to leave. He might not have great top-end speed, but scouts will love his vision, blocking and general all-around game.
Spring practice has concluded for all 14 SEC schools, meaning the start of preseason practice can't be too far away.

But before we flip the page to summer workouts and the rest of the newcomers who'll be arriving in the coming months, let's take a look at those new faces on campus who made the biggest splashes this spring -- junior college transfers and early enrollee true freshmen.

We’ve come up with 10 in the Eastern Division and will unveil 10 more in the West later today.

Here's a look at the East:

[+] EnlargeJosh Malone
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsFreshman wide receiver Josh Malone is one of many new Volunteers that turned heads this spring.
Drew Barker, QB, Kentucky: Even though Patrick Towles played better in the spring game, Barker impressed the Kentucky coaches this spring and heads into the summer right in the thick of the Wildcats' starting quarterback race. True freshman starters at quarterback are rare in the SEC, but Barker is a rare talent.

Duke Dawson, CB, Florida: Florida coach Will Muschamp likes his group of young cornerbacks, and what's not to like with sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III leading the way? Dawson, a true freshman, stepped right in this spring, picked up the system and played well enough that he could be the Gators' starter at the nickel position.

Kenya Dennis, CB, Missouri: With E.J. Gaines departing, the Tigers needed some reinforcements at cornerback. Dennis, a junior college newcomer, showed enough this spring that he could be a key addition in that secondary rotation.

Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee: The Vols have been searching for that go-to running back for several years now. They think they've found him in Hurd, one of the top-rated high school backs in the country last year. The 6-3, 221-pound true freshman showcased power and speed this spring.

C.J. Johnson, DT, Kentucky: The defensive line should be one of the strengths of Kentucky's team next season, and even with the Wildcats losing their top three defensive tackles, they feel good about what Johnson will provide in the middle. Similar to Za'Darius Smith at end last season, Johnson could be the second straight junior college player to make a big impact for the Cats.

Abu Lamin, DT, South Carolina: Not only did the Gamecocks lose Jadeveon Clowney at end, but they also lost Kelcy Quarles at tackle. That's why they went out and got Lamin from junior college, and he proved to be a physical presence inside this spring.

Josh Malone, RB, Tennessee: One of several impressive true freshmen for the Vols, Malone put on a show in the spring game with three touchdown catches. Marquez North didn't have a lot of help last season at receiver. Having a big-play threat like Malone on the other side should only make North more dangerous in 2014.

Von Pearson, WR, Tennessee: The Vols shouldn't lack playmakers at receiver next season. Pearson, a junior college transfer, made waves all spring with some of his acrobatic catches. He'll almost certainly be a starter in the season opener.

A.J. Stamps, S, Kentucky: The Wildcats had a big need at safety, and Stamps jumped in and gave the entire secondary a boost with his play this spring. Coach Mark Stoops really likes Stamps' versatility. He's athletic enough to match up and play man coverage in certain sets.

Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida: Dawson wasn't the only true freshman cornerback to make his presence felt this spring at Florida. Tabor, one of the top-rated cornerback prospects in the country, made a strong bid to be the Gators' starter opposite Hargreaves next season.

Ole Miss spring wrap

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Three things we learned in the spring about the Ole Miss Rebels:

1. Expectations are a good thing: Coach Hugh Freeze thought it would take three years before he even talked seriously about bowls. Now, he’s won two and fans expect him to be bowl eligible before November arrives. Expectations haven’t been this high in Oxford in a while, but with the talent returning, confidence is high and the Rebels are ready to make a run.

2. Wallace is healthy: For all the criticism Bo Wallace has endured, the senior quarterback has played just a couple of games at full strength with his throwing shoulder. After another surgery, Wallace says he feels just at 100 percent. He was limited at times this spring, but his arm is stronger and there’s more zip on this throws.

3. The defensive line has muscle: Last season, the Rebels didn’t have the adequate pass rush that gave their defense juice a year prior. Now, with the return of defensive end C.J. Johnson that elite rusher is back. Robert Nkemdiche is moving inside, where he could be better suited, and ends Fadol Brown, Bryan Bennett and Marquis Haynes could be special players.

Three questions for the fall:

1. How will the offensive line look? Ole Miss has to replace three starters and doesn't have a ton of depth. Outside of left tackle Laremy Tunsil, nothing is really settled up front, and not having Aaron Morris or Christian Morris at full strength this spring didn’t help. Also, the versatile Austin Golson is thinking of transferring. Expect Ole Miss to move a lot of guys around before anything is set.

2. Who will back up Wallace? While Ole Miss has its starting quarterback, the backup is a real unknown. And with Wallace’s injury history, that isn’t a good sign. With Barry Brunetti gone, redshirt freshmen DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan competed with junior college transfer Jeremy Liggins and early enrollee Kendrick Doss, but no one separated himself this spring.

3. Not so special teams? Ole Miss has to replace kicker Andrew Ritter and punter Tyler Campbell with players with very little, if any, experience. Only kicker Andrew Fletcher has any experience (two extra points). He mainly competed with redshirt freshman Andy Pappanastos this spring, but freshman Gary Wunderlich will be involved this fall. Will Gleeson led at punter this spring but has no experience.

One way-too-early prediction:

Some people think the jury is still out on this Ole Miss team, but enough talent returns to make the Rebels a real contender in the West. Even with an early test again Boise State (in Atlanta), Ole Miss will be 4-0 entering a brutal October slate. Still, the Rebels will find a way to win at least nine games for the first time since 2009.

Ole Miss DE eager for return

April, 29, 2014
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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.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Johnson
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisOle Miss DE C.J. Johnson is looking forward to pressuring SEC QBs like he did in 2012 when he posted 6.5 sacks.
“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.
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OXFORD, Miss. – Bo Wallace wanted to be the hero.

Hobbled and hurting, Wallace took off through a sea of maroon, nearly 12 yards away from the end zone. If he had successfully crossed the goal line, Ole Miss’ quarterback would have put the Rebels within an extra point of tying archrival Mississippi State in overtime.

But the fickle college football gods had other plans. He was stripped of the ball around the 2-yard line, sending the ball into the end zone into the hands of the enemy.

Game over.

As the Bulldogs celebrated a bowl berth, Wallace was sprawled on the ground at the edge of the end zone.

“That was the worst thing that could have happened to me, as a quarterback here,” Wallace told ESPN.com in March.

Wallace truly has had a Jekyll-and-Hyde career with the Rebels. Case in point, Wallace turned around a month later to lead the Rebels to a 25-17 win over Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl with 342 total yards and three touchdowns.

“I knew I had to put up numbers; we [had] to win this game so that myself and these fans can somewhat forget about the Egg Bowl,” Wallace said.

Well, good luck in getting Ole Miss fans to forget that loss. But Wallace showed that he can be an effective quarterback in big moments. He’s just had quite the flair for the dramatic during his career. A week before the State game, an ill Wallace threw for 244 yards with no touchdowns and an interception in a 24-10 loss to Missouri. This was all after winning four games in a row.

There has been plenty of turbulence in Wallace’s storm of a career, but he’s ready to prove himself for a final time in Oxford.

Entering his final season with the Rebels, the microscope is focused a little closer, the expectations are higher and his shoulder is finally healthy.

“I’ve never really been healthy my whole career here,” Wallace said. “I’ve probably played two healthy games, and those were my first two my sophomore year.”

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsBo Wallace says he hasn't felt truly healthy throwing the ball since 2012.
Wallace doesn’t use his shoulder as a crutch, but it has kept him from being 100 percent during his two years on the field. After suffering through most of the 2012 season and undergoing offseason surgery in 2013, Wallace hasn’t felt the joy of a healthy throw in a long time.

“His arm strength from Week 1 to the end of the season, it declined consistently throughout the year,” coach Hugh Freeze said.

If you look carefully at the way Wallace threw the ball at the end of last year -- a year in which he passed for 3,346 with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions -- you can tell that his arm slot came down to a more sidearm-style delivery. After an offseason and spring of rehab and fewer reps, Wallace says his arm slot is back up and so is the zip he once had on his passes.

“It’s definitely coming out of my hand more naturally,” a relieved Wallace said with a glowing smile. “I have more pop to it than I did at the end of the year.”

Wallace is throwing the ball better than he has in years, but his coaches were careful with him during the spring. With an important battle raging behind him for the No. 2 quarterback spot, Freeze and his staff decided to scale down his arm work.

Wallace admits it was frustrating to have to sit and watch at times, but he made sure to take mental reps, watched even more film during his down time and became more of a leader to the younger quarterbacks.

That last statement might be what separates Wallace from the quarterback he’s been in the past, according to teammates. His arm strength is key to the final step in his in-game development, but the command he’s taken in the locker room and in the huddle this spring impressed the players around him.

“He’s our team,” defensive end C.J. Johnson said. “With him offensively, he’s been in the system so long, he understands it now. He’s more of a leader. I mean he’s been a leader ever since he’s been here, but he’s turned it up a notch.”

Spring improvements are one thing, but translating that under the lights of a Saturday afternoon in the SEC is totally different. Everyone around Wallace knows that. Cutting down the mistakes that have plagued him in games will require physical and mental strength.

Freeze hopes that more confidence in Wallace’s arm will lead to less head-scratching when the ball leaves his quarterback’s hand.

“Bo is really who he’s gonna be,” Freeze said. “I don’t know how much better we can get him, but I do know this: If he has consistent arm strength throughout the entire season [this fall], it will be to our benefit.”
We all know junior college players are a crap shoot.

Sometimes you hit it big with them. Sometimes you swing and miss.

With spring practice cranking up for a handful of SEC schools, we’ve come up with our top-five impact junior college newcomers in the league. These guys are all already on campus and will go through spring practice. They’re listed alphabetically.

Here goes:

Dontavius Blair, OT, Tennessee: With the Vols losing all five starters on their offensive line from last season, they need reinforcements. The 6-foot-8, 313-pound Blair is the odds-on favorite to replace Antonio Richardson at left tackle. Blair was rated as the nation's No. 6 offensive tackle prospect in the ESPN Junior College 50.

C.J. Johnson, DT, Kentucky: The Wildcats lost Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble in the middle of their defensive line, so there’s plenty of opportunity for the 6-3, 295-pound Johnson to show what he can do this spring. Kentucky held on to Johnson despite Miami pushing hard until the very end.

Abu Lamin, DT, South Carolina: The Gamecocks need a run-stuffer in the middle, and the 6-4, 295-pound Lamin fits that bill. He has three years of eligibility remaining and has the kind of burst off the ball and overall athleticism to develop into much more than just a run-stopper for the Gamecocks.

Christian Russell, LB, Ole Miss: The 6-foot, 230-pound Russell is big, fast and physical and has outstanding closing speed. The Rebels signed him with the hope that he could step in for Mike Marry in the middle. Russell was ranked by ESPN as the No. 1 inside linebacker prospect in the country among junior college players.

D'haquille Williams, WR, Auburn: The 6-3, 213-pound Williams is the epitome of a big-play receiver. He was rated the top overall junior college prospect in the country regardless of position and has all the physical tools to emerge as Auburn’s No. 1 option in the passing game next season.

A few more to watch:

SEC's lunch links

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
12:00
PM ET
Some post-NFL combine takes, some more player safety talk, Florida-Florida State renewed and much more in today's lunch links:

Offseason spotlight: Ole Miss

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
1:30
PM ET
Another player who missed most of the 2013 season, Ole Miss' spotlight subject could provide immediate help when it comes to wreaking havoc behind the line of scrimmage:

Spotlight: Defensive end C.J. Johnson, 6-3, 230 pounds, senior

2013 summary: Johnson played in just four games before having season-ending surgery on his right ankle. During those four games, Johnson recorded 12 tackles, including four for loss.

The skinny: While the Rebels improved to 8-5 during Hugh Freeze's second year in Oxford, what they really could have used throughout the season was a more disruptive pass rush. That was lacking after Johnson went down, and Ole Miss finished the season tied for 12th in the SEC with just 19 sacks -- a year removed from ranking second with 38. Johnson was never truly healthy in 2013 after breaking his right fibula in spring practice, but the hope is that with extra time to rest and surgery, Johnson will be able to enhance the Rebels' play up front. In 2012, he led Ole Miss with 6.5 sacks and could be even better this fall with Robert Nkemdiche requiring a double-team wherever he lines up. As the Rebels continue to improve on defense, they know that to take the next step in their progression, they have to get more aggressive up front. That's where Johnson could really lift this team. He can make the plays behind the line of scrimmage that weren't there in 2013 and free up others to make plays because teams will have to monitor him in pass-rush situations. The Rebels do have players coming back at defensive end, but Johnson is the key. He's the one who could really cause havoc when teams get into passing situations, which would take pressure off of Ole Miss' secondary.

Past spotlights:

Opening camp: Ole Miss

August, 1, 2013
8/01/13
3:00
PM ET
Schedule: The Rebels will open preseason practice on Saturday at 10:45 a.m. ET. Their first day in full pads will be Tuesday.

On the mend: Freshman tight end Christian Morgan, an early enrollee, suffered a knee injury during the spring and underwent surgery. His status for the fall is uncertain. The Rebels are keeping their fingers crossed that junior defensive end C.J. Johnson is fully recovered after fracturing his fibula in the spring and undergoing surgery. Johnson led the team with 6.5 sacks last season. Quarterback Bo Wallace missed the spring after having surgery on his clavicle following the 2012 season. He resumed throwing in May and has participated in 7-on-7 drills this summer. Cornerback Charles Sawyer missed the latter part of the spring with a sprained knee, while offensive guard Aaron Morris is coming back from shoulder surgery that caused him to miss the entire spring.

Key battle: All eyes will be on the Rebels’ talented crop of freshmen, and Tony Conner is one who could challenge immediately for a starting spot at the hybrid “Huskie” position, which is part linebacker and part safety. Sophomore Mike Hilton and senior Brishen Mathews will also be in that equation.

Of note: Only one time last season did Ole Miss win the fourth quarter against SEC foes. The Rebels outscored Auburn 17-0 in the fourth quarter of their 41-20 win over the Tigers. In the Rebels’ other seven league contests, they were outscored by a combined 81-30 margin in the fourth quarter.

Predicted order of finish: Picked fourth in the West at SEC media days.

They said it: “We only had 54 scholarship kids last year and are still thin at some spots. Are a lot of these freshmen ready to play? I don’t know. But they’re going to have to play. That’s the position that we’re in.” – Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze
Now that you've seen where the 14 SEC defensive lines rank heading into the 2013 season, it's time to look at the top defensive linemen coming back.

We're splitting the linemen into ends and tackles, and we'll start with the guys on the outside:

1. Jadeveon Clowney, Jr., South Carolina: Clowney might be the best, most athletic player in the country, regardless of position. He has 21 career sacks (South Carolina's record is 29) and 35.5 tackles for loss, but has yet to play his best ball for the Gamecocks. He's a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate and is easily the most disruptive defensive player in the country when he's going 100 percent. Oh, and he runs a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash while carrying 274 pounds.

[+] EnlargeAlvin Dupree
Richey Miller/CSM (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)Focusing more on the defensive end position this fall, junior Alvin "Bud" Dupree aims to lead Kentucky on the outside.
2. Chris Smith, Sr., Arkansas: He doesn't have near the clout as Clowney, but Smith had a fine 2012 season. He was fourth in the SEC with 9.5 sacks and tied for fifth with 13 tackles for loss. Smith isn't just fierce against the pass either, as he can hold his own in the trenches against the run, too. Smith registered multiple tackles for loss in six of the Hogs final seven games last year.

3. Alvin "Bud" Dupree, Jr., Kentucky: He's moving from outside linebacker, but Dupree has been one of the best pass-rushers in the league the past two years. He has nine sacks in two years and had 12.5 tackles for loss last year. Dupree has exceptional speed off the edge and should be even more dangerous with his hand in the ground this fall.

4. Chaz Sutton, Sr., South Carolina: Even though he was a backup last year, Sutton was still third on the team with five sacks. He really played well when the Gamecocks had four ends on the field (rabbits package) for passing situations. Plus, he'll be freed up a lot this season with teams concentrating so hard on Clowney. Sutton will have plenty of opportunities to make big plays this fall.

5. Dante Fowler Jr., So., Florida: Fowler plays that hybrid linebacker/end "Buck" position, but could see more time at end this fall. He's extremely athletic and fast off the edge and had eight tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks last year. He looked really good this spring and if he continues to improve, he could push fellow Buck Ronald Powell to outside linebacker this fall.

6. C.J. Johnson, Jr., Ole Miss: Johnson should be fully healed from the broken leg he suffered this spring. He has really come a long way in his two years with the Rebels and should establish himself as one of the league's best pass-rushers this fall. He led the Rebels with 6.5 sacks last year and collected 28 solo tackles.

7. Walker May, Sr., Vanderbilt: He might be one of the most underrated players in the SEC. He started 13 games last year, recording 41 tackles, including 10.5 for loss and three sacks. May had at least one tackle for loss in eight games last season, and had five games in which he registered three or more solo tackles.

8. Jermauria Rasco, Jr., LSU: Les Miles didn't seem to concerned with Rasco stepping in at end this spring. He might even be a more polished pass-rusher than predecessors Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, which is scary to think about. He didn't record a lot of stats last year, but he had two years to learn from Mingo and Montgomery, and should have a big season on LSU's rebuilt defensive line.

9. Dee Ford, Sr., Auburn: Ford was one of Auburn's best players last year and finished the year leading the team with six sacks and added 6.5 tackles for loss. Ford was pretty impressive a year removed from a season-ending back injury. He's explosive off the line, is very good in the pass game and should be Auburn's best defensive player this fall.

10. Ed Stinson, Sr., Alabama: With Alabama's three-man front, the versatile Stinson will mainly be outside, but has a chance to move around to give the Tide different looks. Stinson was second on the team with 8.5 tackles for loss and had three sacks last season. Of his 30 tackles last year, 20 were solo.
The SEC prides itself on having all that talent in the trenches, and the defensive lines in this league just continue set this conference apart from everyone else. Here's how all 14 lines rank in the SEC heading into the 2013 season:

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsThe whole nation may be familiar with Jadeveon Clowney, but there's even more power on the South Carolina defensive line.
1. South Carolina: There's more to South Carolina's defensive front than man-beast Jadeveon Clowney. While his 21 career sacks and 35.5 tackles for loss are great, he gets good help from a solid helping of depth, beginning with starters Kelcy Quarles (defensive tackle) and Chaz Sutton (end). Quarles might be one of the most underrated linemen around and should improve on his 3.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss from last year. Sutton was a backup last year, but still registered five sacks and seven tackles for loss. Tackle J.T. Surratt saw action in just 10 games last year, but moves into a starting role this year. Gerald Dixon and Gerald Dixon Jr. provide good depth at tackle and end.

2. Florida: Sure, the Gators lost All-American Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter, but Florida rotated enough guys in last year to have good experience coming back across the board. Star lineman Dominique Easley will play at his more natural position at tackle this year, but will move outside at times. He led Florida with four sacks last year and was consistently disruptive all year. Florida is loaded at end with sophomores Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard returning. Ronald Powell, who is coming off of two ACL injuries will rotate with Fowler at the hybrid linebacker/end "Buck" position, while Damien Jacobs and Darious Cummings will help out at tackle.

3. Arkansas: While Arkansas featured one of the league's worst defenses last year, the Razorbacks were solid up front. Arkansas returns one of the best defensive end combos in senior Chris Smith and junior Trey Flowers. They combined for 15.5 sacks and 26 tackles for loss last year. Inside, you have seniors Byran Jones and Robert Thomas. Jones has started 29 games in his career and had 52 tackles last year. Thomas steps into a starting role this fall after recording five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks last year. The Hogs have young reserves, the staff is excited about guys like JaMichael Winston, Brandon Lewis, Darius Philon, DeMarcus Hodge and Deatrich Wise Jr.

4. LSU: The Tigers lost a lot up front, but this team is used to reloading along the defensive line. Tackle Anthony Johnson has the meat and ability to be one of the best at his position, and excels as both a run-stopper and pass-rusher. He'll be helped by junior Ego Ferguson, who has all the talent to be successful but is still looking to reach his full potential. The staff is expecting big things from end Jermauria Rasco, who might be a better pure pass-rusher than Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery before him. Danielle Hunter and Jordan Allen should do more at end, while incoming freshman Tashawn Bower could see immediate playing time. Also, keep an eye on freshman Christian LaCouture, who played his way into the two-deep this spring at tackle.

5. Ole Miss: There are depth issues at defensive tackle, but the Rebels are stacked on the outside. C.J. Johnson should be back from the broken leg he suffered this spring, and has All-SEC talent at end. Fellow end Cameron Whigham only had 1.5 sacks last year, but started 11 games. Channing Ward got a lot of action this spring with Johnson out and has the chance to have a true breakout season. All eyes will be on freshman Robert Nkemdiche, who was the No. 1 recruit in the 2013 recruiting class and is physically ready to play right now. Tackle Issac Gross should be healed from his spring grown injury and will get good help from junior college transfer Lavon Hooks.

6. Alabama: Right now, Alabama is still searching for the elite players it's used to having up front. This unit wasn't as consistent as Nick Saban would have wanted this spring, but there is a lot of potential in the trenches, starting with the versatile Ed Stinson, who can line up inside or out and recorded 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks last year. Jeoffrey Pagan could be fun to watch at the other end spot. He was a big-time recruit a few years ago and will get a lot more time to shine this fall. Brandon Ivory has to replace Jesse Williams at nose guard, but showed good flashes this spring. LaMichael Fanning will also help at end. Alabama is young here, but will continuously rotate again in order to keep guys fresh.

7. Vanderbilt: End Walker May is the star of this very talented group. He isn't the biggest at his position, but he's a relentless worker and is exception at getting to the quarterback on passing plays. Junior Kyle Woestmann came on very strong during the second half of the 2012 season, registering six sacks in the final five games. Then there's sophomore Caleb Azibuke, who grabbedd 4.5 sacks last year, had a great spring and is extremely athletic. With two starters departing, depth is an issue inside, but tackle Jared Morese, who started six games last year is back after being kicked off this team this spring for violating team rules. Juniors Barron Dixon and Vince Taylor both played in 13 games last year. The Commodores also had to move offensive lineman Adam Butler to defensive tackle this spring.

8. Kentucky: There is a lot of experience, starting with seniors Donte Rumph, Mister Cobble and Tristian Johnson at defensive tackle. Rumph, who is coming off of a spring shoulder injury, is the best of the bunch and recorded six tackles for loss and four sacks last year. Cobble is finally starting to reach his potential, and should improve on his three tackles for loss and two sacks from last year. Johnson started nine straight games to end last season. Alvin "Bud" Dupree has nine sacks in the last two years and is moving from linebacker to end this year. Helping him will be junior college transfer Za'Darius Smith, who had an exceptional spring. Incoming freshman end Jason Hatcher will also get a chance to play immediately.

9. Georgia: The first order of business is finding a suitable nose guard to replace the massive John Jenkins. Right now, it looks like that will happen by committee. Junior Mike Thornton left spring as the starter there, but has just one career tackle. Redshirt sophomore Chris Mayes is next in line, but hasn't recorded any stats during his career. Freshman John Atkins enrolled early this spring and junior college transfer Toby Johnson, who could be the best of them, is recovering from an ACL injury. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham cross-trained all his linemen and was very pleased with Sterling Bailey's improvement, along with senior Garrison Smith, who started eight games last year. Junior Ray Drew is also getting more comfortable up front.

10. Mississippi State: It's not like Mississippi State doesn't have the talent or potential up front, but his group really struggled to get to the quarterback last year. Senior end Denico Autry struggled through the first part of last season, but played strong down the stretch, which is really encouraging to the staff. End Preston Smith was a backup last year, but still led the Bulldogs with 4.5 sacks. The staff seems pretty excited about tackle P.J. Jones, who made some big plays late for this team last year. Of course, having vet Kaleb Eulls back helps and it looks like he's permanently moving inside. End Ryan Brown didn't blow up the stat chart last year, but had a good spring and should see plenty of playing time this fall.

11. Missouri: This unit was probably the Tigers' strongest last year, but it lost its best player in tackle Sheldon Richardson. Mizzou has to replace him by committee, and Gary Pinkel seemed pleased with his tackles this spring. Matt Hoch had a very good spring and while he isn't the same player as Richardson, he figures out ways to get to the ball and started 12 games last year. Lucas Vincent will line up at nose guard, but injuries limited him to just three tackles last year. Redshirt freshman Harold Brantley has a lot of potential at tackle and should see good time this fall. The Tigers are pretty solid outside, with Kony Ealy and Michael Sam returning. Ealy is just waiting to break out, while Sam led the team with 4.5 sacks last fall. Shane Ray provides good depth at end, while tackle Marvin Foster played in 10 games last year.

12. Tennessee: The Vols have to figure out how to move around all those pieces up front with the defense moving back to a traditional 4-3 look. Big-bodied Daniel McCullers is the top player along the line, but he has to be more disruptive up front. He has to be more than just a space eater. Senior Jacques Smith should move down to end from linebacker, while fellow seniors Marlon Walls and Daniel Hood should push for starting time at end and tackle. Senior Maurice Couch is another player with a ton of talent, but has to be more consistent inside. Junior Jordan Williams should also move down after playing a hybrid end/linebacker position last year.

13. Auburn: The Tigers just weren't good enough up front last year, ranking 11th in the SEC in sacks (22) and 12th in tackles for loss (66). Now the best player -- end Corey Lemonier -- is gone. A handful of vets return, but this group has to be tougher and more consistent. Senior ends Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae lead things up front, but only accounted for 8.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks last year. Eguae will have his hands full trying to fend off Kenneth Carter, who moved from tackle to end this spring. Jeffrey Whitaker, Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright lead the inside game, but only Blackson had more than five tackles for lass last year (a team-high seven).

14. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost quality starters like Damontre Moore and Spencer Nealy and the injury bug devastated this unit during the spring. No one will replace Moore's 21 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks, but A&M needs multiple guys to step up. Julien Obioha started 12 games as a true freshman last year, but has to stay healthy this fall, as he's the key to the entire line. He also has to generate a better pass rush. Tackle Kirby Ennis started 11 games last year, but ran into legal trouble before spring practice and was suspended, but is expected to return. Youngsters Alonzo Williams, Tyrone Taylor and Tyrell Taylor will be thrown into the mix this fall, but expect plenty of growing pains. Gavin Stansbury and Alonzo Williams have showed flashes here and there, but will have to much more consistent this fall.

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