C.J. Johnson eager to produce for rising Rebels

photo Ole Miss defensive end C.J. Johnson, shown here pressuring former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray in 2012, played only four games last season due to a leg injury.

OLE MISSLast season: 8-5 (3-5)All-time record: 636-497-35SEC titles: 6Opener: Boise State in Atlanta on Aug. 28COMING MONDAY: Mississippi State

Whether he wins or loses one-on-one battles in practice each day, Ole Miss redshirt junior defensive end C.J. Johnson knows he's getting better by the snap.

Johnson's task most workouts is getting around sophomore tackle Laremy Tunsil in a collision of former Rivals.com top-25 national prospects.

"If I had to say, he's probably the best offensive tackle in the country," Johnson said at SEC media days. "It's his feet. It's really, really hard to beat a guy who's got great feet. He's able to get out on you and cover you up so fast.

"Some guys don't have that speed to get out there, but Laremy uses it to his advantage, and he's a lot stronger than people give him credit for."

The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Johnson is trying to do in practice what nobody seemed to do last season, when the 6-5, 305-pound Tunsil helped enable the Rebels to set a school record with 6,153 yards. Tunsil, one of only two true freshman full-time starting left tackles in the nation last season, allowed just one sack all year while protecting the blind side of quarterback Bo Wallace.

While Tunsil was excelling last season, Johnson was having to hang it up early. Johnson led the Rebels with 6.5 sacks as a sophomore in 2012, but he broke his fibula last spring and then underwent surgery on the same leg after playing only four games last season.

Johnson had 12 tackles and four tackles for loss in his four games but did not have the burst he had shown before his injury.

"It was tough," Johnson said. "I had to change roles and watch my teammates from the sidelines. This is probably the best I've felt since I've been here, and I'm really ready to get started."

The Rebels were not an effective pass-rushing team after Johnson went down, ranking tied for 11th in the SEC in sacks. Ole Miss applied for a medical redshirt for Johnson, who hails from Philadelphia, Miss., and received it in February.

Ole Miss had heightened expectations last summer after going 7-6 in Hugh Freeze's first season. The Rebels did show improvement, but it was not dramatic, as a setback at Mississippi State countered a win over LSU in what wound up an 8-5 finish.

"We had some growing pains," Johnson said. "We were in all the games except the Bama game. That was the only one that kind of got out of hand. We should have won the Auburn game. We should have won the Texas A&M game. We should have won the Mississippi State game, so we were right there."

Said Freeze: "To be candid, I think the journey that we've been on has been faster than I thought possible. When I first arrived, I really thought we could hopefully go to a bowl game in year three."

The Rebels are a long way from the 6-18 record they posted in Houston Nutt's final two seasons in 2010-11. Nine starters return defensively, including All-America safety Cody Prewitt, and the offense has Wallace, Tunsil, tight end Evan Engram and receiver Laquon Treadwell among its six starters back.

"Right now, we've got the guys in place to where we can really do something special in this conference," Johnson said. "Defensively, we're finally two-deep, and we feel like we've got some guys we can throw at you on defense. Offensively, we've got people we can throw at you and score a bunch of points."

The schedule is favorable with an opener against Boise State in Atlanta serving as the top out-of-conference game and cross-divisional matchups with Tennessee in Oxford and with Vanderbilt at L.P. Field in Nashville. The stellar 2013 signing class is more developed and mature, but until the season starts, it will be more of those practice battles between Johnson and Tunsil.

"I've tried to add some more rush moves to my package," Johnson said. "Going against Laremy every day, some of that stuff gets old. Some of it is not going to work because his feet are so good.

"Going against him every day is definitely helping me become a better player because he's so talented."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.