Patrick Ochs

Former Ole Miss star returns ‘home’ to East Mississippi

Former Ole Miss defensive standout C.J. Johnson, shown holding the Golden Egg Trophy after the Rebels beat Mississippi State 38-27 in 2015, is set to join Pearl River Community College’s coaching staff as the defensive line coach.
Former Ole Miss defensive standout C.J. Johnson, shown holding the Golden Egg Trophy after the Rebels beat Mississippi State 38-27 in 2015, is set to join Pearl River Community College’s coaching staff as the defensive line coach. AP

Former Ole Miss defensive star C.J. Johnson is returning to his home state, just not the school most expected.

After only being at Pearl River Community College for a couple of days late last month, the Florida Atlantic graduate assistant received a call that East Mississippi Community College was losing an assistant coach to UT-Chattanooga.

The decision was a difficult one in many ways — but in other ways, not so much.

Johnson recently told the Sun Herald he’s headed back to Scooba, where he began his coaching career two seasons ago, this time as the new defensive line coach.

“I felt bad because I hated leaving Pearl River after only a couple of days, but it was a chance to return home,” said Johnson, who added he never officially signed paperwork at PRCC. “I wasn’t expecting it to happen, it just kind of happened.”

Johnson said Scooba’s proximity to family in Philadelphia played a big role in his decision.

“It’s good because I’ve been (at EMCC) and thought this place was pretty special,” Johnson said. “I’m just blessed to be able to come home.”

Johnson hopes to have his EMCC contract signed by the end of the week.

Plenty of promise

As for the Lions, coach Buddy Stephens is excited to get Johnson back on his staff.

“He brings a lot of energy. He’s a high energy, highly motivated guy,” Stephens said. “He deserves his opportunity to move up the ranks in coaching and this is our opportunity to give it to him.”

Johnson really caught Stephens’ attention two years ago when the former Rebel served as a graduate assistant.

“I was really enamored with how he was as a person and his personality,” Stephens said. “C.J. has worked tirelessly to build his name in the state and I think he has done a really good job.

“He’s old enough to be a really good coach and young enough to really relate to his players.”

Road to coaching

Johnson originally began thinking about his life after football back in 2013 when he missed the bulk of the season due to an ankle injury, but it wasn’t until the New England Patriots cut the undrafted free agent on the first day of training camp in 2016 that he decided it was time to move on.

“A lot of people don’t know I had surgery the following day after my pro day,” he said. “I basically went from not holding anything heavier than a gallon of milk for three weeks and sitting on the couch because I couldn’t work out, to (trying to make the Patriots).”

In the aftermath of being cut, Johnson began calling around.

“I was mostly calling looking for advice on what to do. I was really hurt and wasn’t in any kind of shape to play football, so my thinking was maybe I should get into coaching,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want to wait until November, still not have a call (to play) and on top of that, now I don’t have a job.”

Giving back

The new career will give Johnson an opportunity to pay it forward.

“I view it as a blessing. There aren’t a lot of guys who get this opportunity at 24 years old,” he said. “I view it as an opportunity to give back to all the players I coach. I want to teach them, mold them into men and help them become great football players.

“That’s what motivates me, to help another person out.”

Having spent the last two seasons as a GA for Stephens and then Lane Kiffin at FAU this year, Johnson believes like he’s ready to assume his new role.

“I think the adjustment will be pretty smooth. I’ve run the meetings before and done things before as a GA, so they were all great experiences up to this point,” he said. “It will be different because when you’re a full-time coach, you’re the guy for that position. It’s a big responsibility to make sure you have the players ready to play week in and week out.”

During Johnson’s previous stint at EMCC, the Lions finished 11-1 with a victory in the Mississippi Bowl on Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s campus in Perkinston.

LB C.J. Johnson says emotional fire kindled by TCU became "summer fuel" for Rebels' defense.

Patrick Ochs: 228-896-2321, @PatrickOchs

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