Ole Miss lost one of its top defenders for the spring when defensive end C.J. Johnson broke his fibula during Wednesday's practice. But Johnson's injury, while devastating for a true up-and-comer in the SEC, will give one of his teammates a chance to make some waves this spring.
Coaches want rising sophomore Channing Ward to take big steps this spring, and now he has that opportunity. Ward, who was an ESPN 150 member and the No. 5 defensive end coming out of high school in 2012, played in 12 games last season at defensive end and on special teams. He registered 21 tackles, including 1.5 for loss.
A lot is expected of Ward, Hugh Freeze has already said this spring that he thinks Ward is a breakout candidate this spring. He has a better chance of doing that with Johnson sidelined. Sure, the Rebels would love to have Johnson getting reps this spring, but it'll be a big win for both Ward and Ole Miss if Ward makes strides in his game.
The Rebels want to attack as much as possible up front and having another talented, game-ready player such as Ward in the mix this fall will make this defense that much better. Ward has plenty of athleticism and strength. He also has plenty of speed, which should make him deadly off the edge.
We've learned throughout the years that you can never have too many defensive linemen in this league and creating pressure off the edge is a must. If Ward evolves this spring, the Rebels should have an extremely talented and deep front defensively.
It's also important to Ward because the nation's No. 1 recruit, end Robert Nkemdiche, will be on campus this summer, and everyone is ready to see him get on the field. Some think Nkemdiche is more physically ready than Jadeveon Clowney was when he first got to South Carolina. If Nkemdiche can live up to his billing, all of Ole Miss' ends will have to fight for their spots.
Regardless, Ward will be looking over his shoulder at Nkemdiche when he arrives, so this is a big spring for him. He can't afford to slip or he'll find himself looking up at even more bodies on the depth chart.
It's tough to lose a player like Johnson, but the Rebels could benefit from getting more out of Ward this spring.