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August 29, 2012OXFORD, Miss. -- C.J. Johnson didn't expect the superlative Hugh Freeze heaved his way on Monday.
The Ole Miss head coach told media that the sophomore defensive end is the Rebels' "best player," though he needs to add some weight to his frame.
"We need to keep him healthy," Freeze said. "I expect him to be a major factor in our pass-rush schemes. I wish he were a little heavier. That could take a toll on his body probably as the stretch goes on. We will hopefully get him a little bigger and be smart when we use him. Couldn't be more pleased with the way he's bought in and the way he's practiced up to this point."
Johnson, normally quick to respond and join in conversation, took a second to soak in Freeze's compliment. A few pauses prefaced his humble acknowledgement.
"Kind of caught me off guard," Johnson said. "It's a lot of hard work through camp and just buying in to what the coaches are teaching me and applying that practice each day."
The heralded five-star high school linebacker has completed his transition to defensive end. He'll line up on the front line Saturday at 6 p.m. when Ole Miss opens the season against Central Arkansas. The move has been frustrating at times, but as technique has improved, Johnson has shown the ability to be a dynamic pass rusher.
With plus speed and quick-twitch movement, Johnson will move around and stand up on the end at times to maximize his advantages. He's worked tirelessly to learn the position and is ready to test it in game action.
"I'm comfortable at this point," Johnson said. "It's a matter of not losing focus. You have to go out and get better every day. Coach always talks about tools in the toolbox, and the more tools in your toolbox the better job you have of getting to the passer."
"I didn't know he was going to be as good as he is right now," defensive line coach Chris Kiffin said. "I think he's really going to add to our defense. You can just tell his body is getting bigger and stronger. He's still only a true sophomore, which is just shocking to me."
Johnson understands his weight is under a microscope, but he admits the questions are getting a tad monotonous. His size has been a constant conversation topic since the position switch. He's added a couple pounds during fall camp and is right at 240 pounds currently.
Putting on about five more would be perfect, but he's not rushing it. He's trying to fit five or six proper meals around his schedule, all the while keeping the weight on despite burning quite a few calories at practice.
"I'm doing the things they ask me to do and concentrating on the way they want me to play," Johnson said. "It requires me to add a little weight, but I don't think that'll be a problem Right now the main thing is not putting on too much weight too fast. You have to do it the right way.
"Eating after practice and being able to eat breakfast are the main things. We're able to get full-course meals throughout camp and that has helped."
Johnson's weight is a main focus, but it's secondary to his preparation for Central Arkansas. He's been watching film for a couple weeks now and actually took a break from the studying to talk to the media. He likes where his defense is, but after last season, Johnson isn't taking anything for granted.
"They can do things to hurt us if we're not careful and sound fundamentally," Johnson said. "We have to play solid football. You can't sleep on anybody. We have to be focused and ready to play."
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