OXFORD – (AP) Defensive end C.J. Johnson lived through Mississippi’s nightmare football season in 2011, so he wasn’t complaining that last weekend’s 49-27 season-opening victory over Central Arkansas wasn’t a masterpiece.
“My only expectation going into the game was to win,” Johnson said. “We played well. We started out and struggled a little bit in the first half, but we made some adjustments and came out in the second half and played pretty good.”
It was a welcome development for an Ole Miss program that came into the season on a seven-game losing streak. Now with a notch under the win column – and a little confidence – first-year coach Hugh Freeze and his players are trying to improve quickly.
The competition only gets tougher. The Rebels (1-0) host UTEP (0-1) on Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium before an early-season test against Texas on Sept. 15. UTEP played No. 4 Oklahoma tough last weekend before losing 24-7.
The bulk of the improvement needs to come from the Ole Miss defense, which struggled in the first half as Central Arkansas built a 20-14 lead. The Bears – who play at the Football Championship Subdivision level – moved the ball with surprising ease against the Rebels, gaining 237 yards in the first half.
“Defensively, our eyes were awful,” Freeze said. “I don’t know if it was nerves or anxiousness. We play a lot of young kids. I forget that sometimes.”
The defense was much better in the second half, allowing the offense time to string together five touchdowns and an insurmountable 49-20 lead before Central Arkansas tacked on one more touchdown in the final minutes.
Freeze was encouraged the Rebels didn’t let early frustration snowball into something more serious.
“It could have gone either way there at halftime,” Freeze said. “I thought that our kids came back out and showed some excitement and energy. They started playing a lot better.”
The Rebels are starting to build a young nucleus of talent on the defense that should only improve. Johnson was one of the team’s premier recruits last season, but struggled to find home last season under the previous coaching staff while shuffling between defensive end and linebacker.
But Freeze has kept Johnson at defensive end, and called the 6-foot-3, 233-pounder the team’s best player during preseason camp.
Johnson was constantly in the backfield against Central Arkansas and finished with six tackles, including a sack. He’s part of a defensive line that includes true freshmen Channing Ward and Issac Gross.
“It’s a work in progress, but we’re a pretty physical bunch,” Johnson said.
Denzel Nkemdiche is a 5-foot-11, 203-pound redshirt freshman who is a little small to play linebacker, but is a perfect fit for one of Freeze’s hybrid positions that’s a mix of safety and linebacker. He had a team-high eight tackles, including three for a loss against Central Arkansas.
Nkemdiche improved as the game progressed, but struggled to control his emotions. Freeze can relate.
“We’re playing with young kids and they have to learn how to control those emotions all day,” Freeze said. “It was probably not good for him to be around me all day either. I was pretty jacked up myself. He only played about 30 plays because he had to have some IVs, but he’s settled down a lot now. It helps having that first one under his belt. He played extremely well.”
Even though the Central Arkansas win was nice, Freeze knows the good vibes will be fleeting unless improvement happens quickly.
“We’ve got our hands full with UTEP,” Freeze said. “I was hopeful that I would put on the film and see a team that’s maybe not playing with great passion. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”