Made in Mississippi: C.J. Johnson on beating Alabama, Twitter and gator hunting
When he pledged his loyalty to Ole Miss in January 2011, C.J. Johnson had a plan: Get the Rebels to the top of college football. Sor far, it’s working well for the Philadelphia, Miss., native, who switched from defensive end to linebacker this fall—in three games he has made 13 tackles and has intercepted two passes—and has helped the No. 3 Rebels to a 4–0 start. Before Ole Miss travels to Gainesville this weekend to face off against undefeated Florida, Johnson caught up with Campus Rush.
Lindsay Schnell: You moved this year from defensive end to middle linebacker. Why has it worked so well, and what’s the biggest difference?
C.J. Johnson: I think it’s worked well because of my football instincts. I’m always trying to be one of the smartest guys on the field, and I know what to do. I have a great defensive line that I play behind; they make my life a whole lot easier and keep the reads easy for me. I’m around guys who allow me to make plays.
LS: So you’ve played defensive end and linebacker. Are there any other positions you’d be really good at?
CJJ: I tried to get coach [Hugh] Freeze to put me at quarterback, but he wouldn’t give me a shot. I told him I have a better arm than Chad [Kelly], but I hurt my elbow a couple weeks ago and it’s not doing too well so I probably couldn’t throw the ball too well. He wouldn’t [listen].
LS: What’s something about coach Freeze that would surprise people?
CJJ: He’s a guy who’s really concerned about everybody. Like, I don’t think you could walk past coach Freeze without him asking how your day is; he’ll make you have a conversation with him. It’s impossible to walk by him and say, “Hey coach. how you doing? I've gotta get somewhere.” He’s like, “No, no, slow down. How you doing? How’s your day, man?” Then, when he asks you, you just feel so obligated, so then it’s, “How are you doing, coach?” When you’re around him, it’s impossible to not have a conversation.
LS: How many times a day do you use the phrase “Hotty Toddy” in conversation?
CJJ: I try to use it on Twitter a lot, but I don’t just walk around yelling, “Hotty Toddy!” It’s just weird. It’s more of a game-day thing. You walk by random people on campus and they’ll say it, but it’s one of those things that you can’t just say once. It’s not just, “Oh, Hotty Toddy,” and then you go on with your day. No, if you say it, you have to say it five or six times.
LS: After you guys beat Alabama 43–37 on Sept. 19 for your second straight win over the Crimson Tide, there was a lot of the-dynasty-is-over type reaction coming out of Tuscaloosa. Did it feel that way to you, that you had just slayed Goliath?
CJJ: I think it was more of, we knew we could do it. Our coaches were telling us all week that we were the better team going into the game, [that] we were talented enough to win, and that was the mindset everyone developed. It almost felt like, O.K., this is where we are, this is where we want to go and this is the next step. We got to the next step.
LS: Sounds pretty routine. As a Mississippi native, I’m sure you have a lot of pride in your state. What has it been like to see Ole Miss become relevant again?
CJJ: That was one of the reasons I came here. I knew I wasn’t going to leave the state of Mississippi to play college football. And when I came here, me, Donte Moncrief, A.J. Moore, Justin Bell and a couple other guys, we thought, “Hey, why not have all the top guys in the state go to one school and let’s try to change the program and see how it turns out.” Look where we are now.
Aaron M. Sprecher/AP
LS: I saw on Twitter you that were very upset about Popeye’s being closed last Sunday. Is going there part of your regular off-day routine?
CJJ: Oh yes. I try to go to Popeye’s on Sundays to get some good Louisiana fried chicken. I probably eat Popeye’s two or three times a week. Something about it, it’s so good. You don’t even have to get the vegetables there. You cook vegetables at home and then you just go to Popeye’s and get the chicken! It completes the meal. You’ve got good fried chicken, you don’t have to stand over the stove and shake and batter and deal with all the grease. You just go pick it up, and you’ve got dinner.
LS: Who is your favorite person to follow on Twitter?
CJJ: Oooh. I couldn’t really say one person. I’d just have to say the Ole Miss fan base because they’re so intrigued [by] how good we are in football. The trash talk, the memes, all that stuff from game weeks, it’s pretty funny.
LS: That’s interesting, because a lot of people try to avoid crazy fans on Twitter. You’re embracing them.
CJJ: But see, that’s the thing: A lot of people think [that] if you’re on Twitter, you have to tweet. No! I’m on Twitter most the day, but I’m not actually tweeting. I’m just looking at what other people are saying. I’m a tweet watcher.
LS: Who first introduced you to football?
CJJ: My dad. I started playing when I was five, started tackle when I was six. Just being around him and him teaching me. Then, when I turned 13, I lost my dad. Me and my brother, Kylanski, we’d sit and play video games all the time. When he got to college and we’d play video games, he’d break down defenses to me. He’d teach me what this defense meant and what that defense meant, because he played receiver [at Jackson State]. So, I’d run a play on a video game and he’d say, “They’re running a Cover 1, they’re blitzing.” He’d know what I was doing before I did it. Once I got to high school and then [when] I got to college, I wanted to learn even more [about the game]. It just intrigued me.
And now, every Saturday, I just try to play for my dad. I know he’d be really proud of me.
LS: Your great-great-grandfather was a police officer, and you’re a criminal justice major. Do you want to follow in his footsteps when you’re done with football?
CJJ: I don’t know. I chose criminal justice because I wanted to do something interesting, not boring. I’ve always been interested in wanting to know the law. I think nowadays, as a black man, you have to know the law. [Laughs.] That’s why I chose it.
LS: I’ve also heard that you’re a good ol’ country boy who likes to fish. Tell me your craziest fishing story.
CJJ: Oooh. I’ve got a bunch of them. Actually, this year me, my uncle and my nephew were fishing.... My uncle, he wasn’t paying attention. When he pulled his rod back, the line hit me right in the corner of the eye. I’m so glad he didn’t hook me because the hook was probably about five inches. Got lucky. Just had a little bruise.
Then one time, I was out fishing, and we were close to a bank with a tree branch leaning over into the water. There was a bass, I guess he was feeding on the minnow on the bank. He kept jumping out of the water, probably a 45-pound bass. I tried to pitch over to get him and my lure got stuck in the tree. So, I'm trying to ease it on up, ease it on up and then I yank it, and it gets caught in the branch. So then I'm pulling on the line slowly and it’s pulling the boat, and all of the sudden I tug one time and the lure comes back and hits me dead in the stomach.
CR: Do you have any desire to fish or hunt for other things, like gators?
Johnson: Well, we’ll be hunting Gators this weekend. But for actually getting in a boat and going in the swamp, I don’t know about that. I’ll just watch it on TV.