Senior center Terry Johnson was too short.
Playing about two miles from Ole Miss’ campus at Oxford High School, Johnson was a good prep football player, earning second-team all state honors as a senior. But the Ole Miss staff under then-coach Houston Nutt was more concerned about Johnson’s measurables than his on-field performance.
“They looked at me for a little bit,” Johnson said. “But for coach Nutt’s coaching staff, it all came down to the height thing. … Arm length and whatever all that stuff was.”
Johnson is one of several players on the Cajuns’ current roster who was recruited by the Rebels, but ultimately didn’t make the grade. Plenty more always wanted to play for one of the big state schools in their home state, but didn’t have the opportunity.
Sometimes, life has a funny way of working out. The Cajuns’ Mississippi natives, half of whom are seniors or fourth-year juniors, will finally get a chance to play a game at Vaught-Hemingway stadium — albeit in road whites.
“I’m not sour about it,” said Johnson, who spent a year at Northwest Mississippi Community College before signing with the Cajuns.
“I’m happy where I am right now. I love it.”
Senior defensive lineman Justin Hamilton had a similar reaction. The Natchez, Mississippi native’s brother played at Mississippi State and he always figured he’d follow his footsteps.
“I’d been dreaming of playing for a home state school,” Hamilton said. “But my path led me to UL, and I’ll never regret it.”
For two schools that are separated by a half dozen hours of interstate travel and the perceived gap in talent between Southeastern Conference and Sun Belt Conference teams, there are an awfully high number of connections between Ole Miss and UL-Lafayette.
The Ragin’ Cajuns have 16 players that hail from the Magnolia State, half of whom are projected starters and another four figure to get extensive playing time. Two, Johnson and senior tight end Larry Pettis, prepped at Oxford High School.
Backup safety T.J. Worthy, an Alabama native, spent a year as a redshirt on the Rebels’ roster before transferring to the Cajuns after Nutt was fired.
Three Cajuns coaches hail from Mississippi, two of which spent time coaching on the opposite sidelines of the Rebels’ biggest rival, Mississippi State.
“Every city in Mississippi is split right down the middle,” said assistant head coach Reed Stringer, a Canton, Mississippi native who spent one year the same Mississippi State staff as Cajuns head coach Mark Hudspeth.
“I grew up a Mississippi State person, both my parents graduated from Mississippi State and, of course, then I coached there. This will be my eighth time playing against Ole Miss as a coach.”
Hudspeth said he hasn’t given much thought to going back to his native land, other than his parents asking him for some extra tickets to the game. But he’s aware that some loyalties might be crossed on game day.
No hard feelings, Hud. It’s game day.
“There will be a lot of people there that I know, a lot of friends there that might not be my friend for that day,” Hudspeth said.
The coaches should have an easier time of blocking out the distraction of playing in their home state. After all, Hudspeth and Stringer were both part of a couple Egg Bowl contests between Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Stringer said this will be his eighth contest against Ole Miss as a coach, his first coming in Eli Manning’s senior season.
But it can be a different animal for the players, some of whom could be looking at what might’ve been if they’d just been a little faster, a little stronger or a little taller coming out of high school.
Though most of the Cajuns’ Mississippi natives won’t admit it publicly, beating a team that didn’t think they were good enough to play there would be as sweet as it gets.
Johnson is not like most though.
“Growing up in Oxford, you always wanted to play at an SEC school,” Johnson said. “I’m happy with the place I’m at; I wouldn’t change this for anything. But going back, I just want to show that I’ve got a chip on my shoulder.
“I want to show them how good I am now, how good my team is. That’s all I want to go back. I want to show them what they missed out on — all of us, all the Mississippi guys that they missed out on.”
Said Stringer, “There’s no other way to get a chip off your shoulder than to go beat the team you wanted to play for.”