A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
The Ole Miss defense was incredible last season, allowing just over 17 points per game despite a couple of bad losses to end the season. Rebel defensive players flew all over the field, getting to the ball quickly and with ferocity. They forced thirty-two turnovers, a very, very high amount. Led by a strong defensive line and incredible secondary, the Rebels got stops when they needed them, and the defense did its job (usually).
Unfortunately, Ole Miss loses its three leading tacklers at linebacker this year in Deterrian Shackelford, Serderius Bryant, and Keith Lewis. All three are out of eligibility, having contributed a great deal to the Rebel defense through the years. A position that was already the weakest on the defense (relatively) becomes even weaker.
In an effort to stem some of the issues at the position, Ole Miss coaches have elected to move senior defensive end CJ Johnson to middle linebacker. Johnson was recruited at that position, having played it all through high school and emerging as a five-star recruit. Since arriving at Ole Miss, however, he has moved to defensive end and is the Rebels' active sack leader. So just why did the coaches feel like they needed to make the move?
Depth at Defensive End
The first reason is the amount of depth the Rebels have at defensive end. Johnson isn't leaving a spot with an absence of players waiting for their shots at playing time. Only one significant player at the position, Carlos Thompson, is out of eligibility.
Marquis Haynes, of course, set the Ole Miss world on fire last season when he started four games as a true freshman, accumulating 31 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 8 QB hurries, and forcing three fumbles. Haynes was named a Freshman All-American and clearly enters his sophomore season as he best pass rusher on the team. He's a physical freak, and he'll likely start every game for Ole Miss next season, assuming he stays healthy.
Across from Haynes is Fadol Brown, in many ways the Marcus Tillman to Marquis Haynes' Greg Hardy (I'm not actually saying Haynes is Greg Hardy... just that... you know.... they both rush the passer really well). Brown isn't the threat around the edge that Haynes is, but he weighs 280 pounds and eats up blockers, allowing the players behind him to make plays. He's reliable and can help stuff the run well, as evidenced by his 38 tackles on the year. Brown isn't awful at rushing the passer, but that's certainly not his strong suit, as he logged just half a sack on the year.
Next in the pecking order is probably Channing Ward, the player who is likely to benefit the most from Johnson's move. Ward was another five-star recruit coming out of high school who was supremely talented but also supremely raw. His first two seasons at Ole Miss, Ward looked headed towards a bust label. In his third year, though, he contributed a lot on a strong defense, finishing with 30 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles despite earning no starts on the season. With Johnson and Thompson gone, he's likely to play significantly more snaps and have the opportunity to leave a lasting impression on Ole Miss fans.
Other players competing for snaps will be John Youngblood (who had 12 tackles as a sophomore), redshirt freshman Victor Evans (seen as a pass-rushing specialist), and redshirt freshman Garrald McDowell (a DE/DT tweener). All three are expected to play. Inbound freshmen Rasool Clemons (a South Carollina native and pass rusher who needs to gain weight) and Austrian Robinson (whose position hasn't totally been determined) will probably redshirt, given the talent ahead of them.
Suffice it to say that CJ Johnson wasn't essential at defensive end.
With three seniors doing all the heavy lifting last season, it's obvious that Ole Miss isn't all that experienced at the position. It has been a major missing position in each signing class over the last three seasons for Ole Miss. It always seems like they're in on a few guys who could be gamechangers but fail to close with them in February.
Denzel Nkemdiche is really the only proven talent the Rebels have at linebacker, and he hasn't been able to stay healthy as a sophomore or junior after a spectacular freshman season in which he earned Freshman All-American honors after leading the team in tackles, tackles for loss, interceptions, and fumbles forced. Last season, Nkemdiche played in seven games, picking up 28 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and a sack. He just hasn't been able to recapture the dynamic playmaking he showed as a freshman. He's still a solid player though and will definitely start at one position.
Christian Russell enrolled at Ole Miss last January with notable expectations. He's 6'0" 240 lbs., and many fans thought he'd be a great fit for an undersized linebacking corps. It just didn't work out for him to have a big impact for whatever reason. That's not to say Russell didn't contribute: he accumulated 23 tackles and played in all 13 games. It's just that he didn't do anything to stand out. This year he'll have a better chance, with so much talent having left above him.
Other than that, there are 29 tackles, spread among DeMarquis Gates, Tayler Polk, and Temario Strong. That's it. If you're counting on contributions from Ray Ray Smith (who didn't play in a game despite having already used his redshirt), I don't know what to tell you.
The coaches brought in Terry Caldwell in January. The junior college transfer will contribute. His film makes it look as though he's quite fast, something this defense thrives on. But again, he's unproven. Shawn Curtis and Zedrick Woods (the incoming freshmen) were relatively lowly recruited. I don't anticipate either playing this season unless it's out of necessity.
The situation was perfect for CJ Johnson, a leader on the defense who has played a lot of SEC football. His size is great for the "Mike" linebacker spot, and he likely has a strong grasp of the defensive schemes. While he certainly won't be the fastest player in the linebacking corps, I wouldn't bet against Johnson making a lot of bonecrushing hits as he cleans up what Robert Nkemdiche and company let get to him.