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Ole Miss welcomes back seven starters from the nation's No. 1 scoring defense, but two of those starters, seniors C.J. Johnson and Mike Hilton, will be starting the spring at different positions, with Johnson at Mike linebacker and Hilton at Rover safety.

"This is a different team with a different group of players with different talents," Johnson said. "The key for us is how do we build on what he had last year. We have a lot of young guys stepping in and trying to fill roles, so they have to understand what it takes to get to where we were last year."

Johnson was originally recruited as a linebacker and began his Ole Miss career at the position, before moving to defensive end, where he has played for the last three-plus years. He and coaches talked about a move to linebacker after the bowl game and then closer to National Signing Day.

"I wanted to try something different," Johnson said. "The coaches knew I knew the playbook really well and they knew me sitting in the defensive line meetings for install the first couple of days would be completely boring for me, so we decided to try the move."

The most senior member of the Ole Miss defense, Johnson said he knows pretty much know what everybody in front of him is doing, and he also draws on his high school and early college experience playing linebacker, but there's still a lot to learn.

"With the multiple things we do, you have to be able to do a lot of different things, so it's going to be a challenge for me," Johnson said. "It feels familiar and it feels good. A lot comes with the position, being the quarterback of the front of the defense and getting everybody set and lined up, knowing the checks and formations. It's going to be a big learning process for me, but I'm ready for it." 

As a defense, despite ranking among the nation's leaders in most statistical categories, Johnson said they need to give up fewer big plays to improve as a defense. In their meeting yesterday, Johnson said, defensive coordinator Dave Wommack brought up that they were two plays away from an 11-1 record with a case to play in the College Football Playoff.

Those two plays, Johnson said, were a pair of dropped interceptions, one in 35-31 loss to Auburn and another in a 10-7 loss to LSU. He also mentioned a sack that he missed on a third down against LSU, after which the Tigers drove down the field and scored.

"You look at the games we lost, and we didn't get turnovers and we gave up too many big plays," Johnson said. "If we eliminate the big plays and we get more takeaways, we'll be a better defense."

Familiar Spot for Hilton

The coaches have shown a similar type trust in Hilton, who has started a game at every defensive backfield position, including two career starts, both last season, at Rover safety. 

"I feel like it's another good move for me," Hilton said. "Once again, it show the trust the coaches have in me and my ability go out and produce on the field."

His move to Rover safety leaves a two-deep at cornerback that will likely include juniors Tony Bridges, Kailo Moore, Tee Shepard and freshman Kendarius Webster. It also shifted senior Trae Elston from Rover safety to free safety, where he will look to replace three-plus year starter Cody Prewitt.

"Free safety is more in the box and has more run support responsibility, while the Rover safety has more coverage responsibility and has to be able to tackle in the open field," Hilton said. "I feel like it's a good spot for me because open-field tackling is one of my best assets." 

Hilton is learning under first-year safeties coach Corey Batoon, a member of head coach Hugh Freeze's Ole Miss staff since the beginning, who was recently promoted to assistant coach for safeties and special teams coordinator in January.

"He's a strategist," said Hilton of Batoon. "He wants everything down perfect. He wants you making the right steps and everything. I feel like he will put us in the right position to make plays; we just have to go make them."

QUOTABLE:

Johnson on returning to linebacker: "The game has slowed down for me a lot. I pretty much know what everybody in front of me is doing, as opposed to coming in as a freshman when you know absolutely nothing. Right now, I'm getting adjusted to the drops and coverages."

Johnson on his playing weight: "I was trying to lose weight to get down to a weight where I could run and play fast, and over the weekend, I came in Monday at around 246. I have to drop a little weight, but I felt fine yesterday running."

Johnson on the move to linebacker preparing him for the NFL: "I don't really know, I don't really get involved in all that. I try to come to work every day, do my job and play to my strengths as a football player."

Johnson on leadership: "It kind of feels weird being the oldest one out there and being the person that everyone looks up to. It's something I'm ready to embrace."

Hilton on the defense's identity: "I feel the identity of the defense is the same. We still have guys like C.J., myself, Trae, Issac and all those guys on the defensive front. We feel like we have that same Landshark mentality and the mentality to be one of the top defenses."

Hilton on Tee Shepard: "He looks really good. He's holding up and playing well. He's running full speed and everything. He's looking good. He's ready."

Hilton on Tony Bridges: "He's really quiet, but he's really coachable. He's even come up to me and asked questions. He's really coachable. He works with Coach (Jason) Jones a lot. He's good be a good one for us."

Hilton on the younger players: "Breeland (Speaks) has shown dominance up front. He's put on some weight, but he's still able to move. Victor (Evans) is coming off the edge a lot better. Those two I'm really looking forward to seeing this year."

No. 10 Ole Miss was without several starters and regular contributors against Presbyterian, and many others were limited. 

But given an extra week of rest, head coach Hugh Freeze said he expects everyone, with the exception of the players out with season-ending injuries, to be ready to go when Ole Miss travels to Arkansas on Nov. 22.

"The plan this week was same as last week," Freeze said. "We had in our mind a two-week plan to hopefully have everyone. Those who were held out of things last week are being held out this week, but they're doing more stuff. They're running and getting lifts in. I'm going to hold them out of practice this week and be back Sunday, hopefully."

Junior running back I'Tavius Mathers and junior safety Trae Elston, who both missed the Presbyterian game while dealing with concussions, returned to practice this week. Senior linebacker Keith Lewis is going through the concussion protocol this week after suffering one against Presbyterian.

The starting left side of the offensive line, sophomore offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and junior offensive guard Aaron Morris, were held out of the Presbyterian game and the portions of practice open to the media Tuesday and Wednesday, but they are also expected back against Arkansas.

Focus on Fundamentals

In addition to getting healthy, one of the focuses this week was working on the fundamentals, as Ole Miss focused on individual work more than in previous weeks.

On the offensive side of the ball, co-offensive coordinator Dan Werner said, they worked on inside run, the passing game, blocking by receivers and different things they felt like they needed to improve.

"Especially late in the season, you sort of subconsciously feel like if we don't know it by now we're not going to know it, but you need to hit it every day," Werner said. "When you get an open week and you don't have to worry about a game plan, you can work it hard.

On the defensive side of the ball, it was much the same, in addition to getting ahead on preparation for a road game at Arkansas. 

The extra week, defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said, should be a big benefit because of the Razorbacks' shifts and unbalanced formations, to go along with its talented players in the backfield and along the offensive line.

"The goal is to get everybody healthy from all the nicks and everything that's happened with colds and all that stuff," Wommack said. "Cody (Prewitt) missed a day with the flu and whatever you've got with viruses and so forth. Just get them back healthy, and we want to improve fundamentally, which we have done the last couple of days. Obviously, we are also getting ahead on the game plan versus Arkansas."

Young Players in Review

The coordinators on both sides of the ball were pleased with what they saw from some of their younger players in extended action against Presbyterian.

Sophomore running back Mark Dodson and redshirt freshman Jordan Wilkins may have played their way into more significant roles going forward this season, but they were not alone in making an impression on Werner and the offensive staff.

"Derrick Jones caught five balls and that was huge with him moving over from the defensive side," Werner said. "He's gone back and forth, but he caught some nice balls, including for a touchdown. 

"The quarterbacks graded out very well. They didn't make many mistakes. The balls were placed where they were supposed to be, and they made good decisions. I was really pleased with them. "

On the other side of the ball, Wommack has been pleased with the corner's mentality freshman cornerback Kendarius Webster has showed, noting his confidence and maturity in addition to his talent.

"He's a freshman and he still makes mistakes at times," Wommack said. "The game experience is so valuable. He's a very talented young man and he continues to get better and better. He's going to make some mistakes as a freshman, but I'm really pleased with them."

Wommack also mentioned freshman safeties C.J. Moore and C.J. Hampton as players who grew from game experience against Presbyterian. Among the freshmen who are redshirting this season, Wommack said defensive linemen Breeland Speaks and Victor Evans have stood out to the offensive coaches in practice.

"They've sat in the meetings and gone through practice and getting as many reps as the ones do, that's valuable stuff right there," said Wommack of the younger players. "I really like that class and I am excited about the future."

Games of Interest for Ole Miss This Weekend

No. 1 Mississippi State at No. 5 Alabama, 2:30 p.m. CT, CBS

No. 9 Auburn at No. 15 Georgia, 6:15 p.m. CT, ESPN

To win the SEC West and advance to the Southeastern Conference Championship, Ole Miss has to win on the road at Arkansas and at home against Mississippi State and get help. Alabama and Georgia have to defeat Mississippi State and Auburn, respectively, and then Auburn has to defeat Alabama on Nov. 29. 

That would create a three-way tie among Alabama, Mississippi State and Ole Miss, and Ole Miss would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over each team. Both games also hold importance in the College Football Playoff rankings.

No. 8 Ohio State at No. 25 Minnesota, 11 a.m. CT, ABC

No. 4 TCU at Kansas, 2 p.m. CT, Fox Sports 1

No. 3 Florida State at Miami (FL), 7 p.m. CT, ABC

No. 6 Arizona State at Oregon State, 9:45 p.m. CT, ESPN

Other than No. 5 Alabama, which hosts No. 1 Mississippi State, the other five teams ranked ahead of No. 10 Ole Miss are all on the road this week. For Ohio State and Florida State, Minnesota and Miami (FL) likely pose their toughest challenges before their respective conference championship games.

No. 2 Oregon and No. 7 Baylor, like No. 10 Ole Miss, are off this week.

Quotable

"I'm not going to sit there and watch every play and be worried about it because at the end of the day, all we can control is our team. I'm excited to get some rest." - Senior quarterback Bo Wallace, on the open date Saturday

Coordinators Talk Depth, Newcomers

Both coordinators have been pleased with the first couple days of practice as the Ole Miss football team looks to continue to develop more depth on both sides of the ball.

On offense, the discussion starts and ends with senior quarterback Bo Wallace, now more than a year removed from clavicle surgery and the rehabilitation that followed in 2013.

"It's like two different players," co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Dan Werner said. "He's so far ahead. The key is obviously making it all the way through the season, but last year at this time, he was barely coming off rehab. Now, he's not only done with all of that, but he's worked to get his normal strength and maybe then some. He's gained some weight, gotten bigger. He's excited and can't wait for the season."

Running back remains a crowded position, where juniors I'Tavius Mathers (95 carries, 563 yards, 3 touchdowns) and Jaylen Walton (113 carries, 523 yards, 6 touchdowns) are the leading returners, but they are being pushed by sophomore Mark Dodson, redshirt freshmen Eugene Brazley and Jordan Wilkins, and junior college transfer Akeem Judd.

"Two years ago, we basically had one tailback, and he knew pretty much he was going to be the guy," Werner said. "There was nobody else. Now, there's six of them in there, and every one of them is a good player. They're all going to have to battle. If one guy has a bad day, he knows he's probably going to be dropping down."

One of the areas Ole Miss looks to improve is third-down conversion (46 percent, 5th SEC) and red-zone conversion (74 percent, 13th SEC), and part of that is conversion in short-yardage situations. Enter Judd, the biggest of the backs at 6-foot-0 and 220 pounds.

"Today, in the pads, we didn't get a really good look because we're still not going live, but I was pleased," Werner said. "I didn't think we would be impressed with him when we're just in t-shirts, but he made some really nice moves. I'm excited to see when we got live and he makes a nice move, but then gets north and south and runs over someone. That's why we brought him in."

One of the key positions, as far as depth, is offensive line, particularly on the edges. Werner has been pleased with the competition there, but depth remains a concern.

"I like the athleticism of the guys," Werner said. "They are battling. The whole key to that is staying healthy. The depth is the issue. We feel like we have six, seven, eight guys who can really play and help us. If we get a couple banged up, then we have problems."

Junior college transfer Jeremy Liggins, Werner said, can be a really good player at tight end, as he competes for playing time there alongside sophomore Evan Engram and freshman Sammie Epps.

"He's definitely a natural," Werner said. "You can tell him to block somebody, and normally it takes weeks to figure how and where you place your hands and all that, and he just gets into them. He's so strong. He's so physical. And he's so athletic to be able to catch the ball too. It's just learning it. When he will get to that point, nobody knows. We will find out."

On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said the depth is better than it's ever been and the talent level is up also. Two areas for improvement were defensive end and length at corner, and he's been pleased with the progress on both fronts.

"Defensive end, from last year, is a huge thing because we lost them all and we were thin," Wommack said. "We took care of a lot of that in recruiting and we add Fadol (Brown), and C.J. (Johnson) is back healthy and 100 percent. We added Marquis (Haynes) and some of those other guys. I see some good things out of the young guys. That's one thing. 

"And I wanted to see us get longer at corner and recruit longer at corner, and we have been able to do that. We need them to rise up and get some playing time. I love our corners. Some of them are short, and we wanted to get length at corner."

Among those younger players on the defensive line have been freshmen Breeland Speaks and Garrald McDowell.

"He got a little bit overweight, but he's kind of worked himself down," said Wommack of Speaks. "He's tough and he's a competitor. He's figuring out what college football is all about right now. There's no question he's going to be a factor here down the road. When, I don't know."

"He finds a way," said Wommack of McDowell. "He's a steady guy in there. He's tough. He's a competitor. He's really football smart on the field."

With length at corner, you look at sophomore Derrick Jones (6-foot-2, 182 pounds), as well as the additions of junior college transfer Tee Shepard (6-foot-1, 195 pounds) and Kendarius Webster (5-foot-11, 170). 

"He's improved a lot," said Wommack of Jones. "The biggest thing was, physically, he went against one of the best receivers in the nation all spring, and it made him better and made him see he that he had to get stronger. He got strong over the summer and he keeps on coming. I love his length."

"I don't think he's in shape all the way yet," said Wommack of Shepard. "I don't think he's had the conditioning he's needed, so he can't last very long, but the good, quality reps that I see from him are very positive. He has tremendous short-area quickness and has that knack that you want in your corner that's, 'Hey, send me the ball to me. I want the ball thrown to me.' We'll see the whole package here."

Overall, Wommack has been pleased with the freshman class, and no one has stood out more than DeMarquis Gates, a 6-foot-2, 211-pound linebacker from Hampton, Georgia.

"He can run, he's physical, he's tough, and he's smart," Wommack said. "He didn't play last year, so I really wasn't expecting what we have been getting from him. Each and every day, including today, he has shown up, so that's a good thing for us."

Before taking his turn at the podium in the main room at SEC Media Days on Thursday, head coach Hugh Freeze met with members of the Ole Miss local media and addressed a wide variety of topics. Here are some of the highlights:

On Tee Shepard:

"I saw his update yesterday. It looked good. When his classes end on July 25, we will start getting the grades from the junior college to the (NCAA) clearinghouse. You're never sure of the time frame of those things, but we feel very confident, today, that he has what he needs to qualify. Hopefully he will be there right around the beginning of the camp, provided he finishes the way he's doing right now."

On the health of Bo Wallace:

"He feels really good. He's really confident. He looks better and has put on about 15 pounds. He's excited about the way he feels and the works that's taking place in the offseason, not only with Paul Jackson, but with some specialists who have looked at him. It's as confident as I have seen him." 

On Bo Wallace working with quarterback specialist Tom House:

"We have talked about it and watched videos together. Everything is giving him confidence. We're excited. Hopefully, the arm strength that he has right now will be sustained throughout the year because of a full offseason of rehab work and strengthening and working with specialists."

On Fahn Cooper:

"(Paul Jackson) is excited about Fahn. He was ahead of where he thought he would be when he got here. He's a hard worker. He's an athletic kid. We're excited that he's exactly who we thought he would be."

On Aaron Morris and Christian Morris returning from injury, and the team's overall health:

"Aaron is doing everything now. It seems to be good. He's still working on his weight. He should be ready to go day one. Christian Morris is working out now. I'm not sure if he will be released to go day one for everything.

"Losing Chief Brown was difficult. He is a wonderful kid and we needed him. You finally get your secondary where you think it's a really solid two-deep. We lose Collins Moore this week for a period of time. He has a knee that will hold him out 4-to-6 weeks. That's part of the game. That's why you have to go recruit depth. We feel better because we have better depth at most places than we have had the last two years."

On incoming freshmen:

"Rod Taylor is a good player. How good will he be as a freshman, I don't know. We will need some of those young kids to play on the offensive line. Him and Fahn Cooper are the first two who jump off the page. We're really excited about Breeland Speaks and Garrald McDowell. We're going to need one of those receivers -- Dayall (Harris), Markell (Pack), Sammie (Epps) -- one of those guys to give us some depth at receiver. We're really excited about those guys. 

"We're really excited about the whole class. Top to bottom, it is a very solid class. The ones who jump out are the ones where we have needs: offensive line and wide receiver depth."

On Jeremy Liggins:

"He's done absolutely phenomenal work. I couldn't be happier with Jeremy Liggins. He looks like a million bucks. He's running around. He's down to about 280 pounds. I don't know where I'm going to play him, but he's going to help us."

On backup quarterback:

"If we were playing today, it would totally depend upon the situation. If we were able to run the entire offense that we have, it would probably be (DeVante) Kincade. If we had to stand in the pocket and make a drive throwing the ball down the field, it would probably be (Ryan) Buchanan."


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