September 29, 2012; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver Amari Cooper (9) tries to escape the tackle of Mississippi Rebels defensive back Charles Sawyer (3) during the second quarter at Bryant Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-US PRESSWIRE

The 2013 Ole Miss Defense

For the first time in three years, it is too early to be discussing next year’s football team. For the sake of propaganda, I thought that I would give it a shot. The 2012 defense currently ranks seventh in the SEC in total defense, an impressive stat when you consider a few things. Firstly, the SEC is a conference that prides itself on having outstanding defense, being in the middle of that pack is no small feat. Secondly, this is the team’s first year under defensive coordinator Dave Wommack. Thirdly, the youth of this team is wildly abundant.

In last week’s win over Auburn, Ole Miss started one senior, four juniors, three sophomores, and three freshmen. The lone senior is defensive tackle Uriah Grant, who has given the line steady production over the last two years. Since the voids left by Jerrell Powe and Ted Laurent, the Rebels have needed a defensive tackle to step up. Grant and freshman Issac Gross have done just that. Grant’s production and leadership are going to be hard to replicate, but there are options.

September 22, 2012; New Orleans, LA, USA; Tulane Green Wave quarterback Devin Powell (1) and Ole Miss Rebels defensive tackle Uriah Grant (93) react following a turnover on downs during the second quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE

Replacing senior leadership is always hard, but who can replace him on the line. There are three likely picks to fill in the roles of Grant and fellow departing senior Gilbert Pena. Sophomore Bryon Bennett has already started two games over Grant this year, but he will have to increase his productivity. Another defensive tackle in the rotation will be sophomore Carlton Martin, a highly-touted four-star prospect out of Madison, Miss. Bennett and Martin are around the relative size of Grant, with Martin being a step quicker. Redshirt freshman Woodrow Hamilton has seen considerable playing time this season and has registered 1.5 tackles for loss. The largest of the three young tackles, Hamilton has been the most productive.

Another guy who will be in the mix for playing time could be EMCC commit, Darious Cummings. A Florida State transfer, Cummings saw playing time as a true freshman for the Seminoles, registering three tackles in three games. He is deceptively quick for a 300-pound lineman, ranked as the no. 4 defensive end prospect in the nation according to ESPN. Paired up with another quick-step tackle in Gorss could prove to be a lethal combination.

Defensive end is a strongsuit for Ole Miss considering the pearls of the last two signing classes have been CJ Johnson and Channing Ward. The depth at this position is particularly exciting for Hugh Freeze and Wommack. Both are over 6’3, are quick enough to play linebacker in a 3-4, and were widely considered to be in the top five in the country at their position. Under defensive line coach Chris Kiffin, both players should flourish given his track record. Johnson has already emerged as a star, recording 32 tackles, 1.5 TFL, and a fumble returned for a touchdown. Junior Cameron Whigham has developed under Kiffin and has 17 tackles so far this season.

The already lethal defensive ends could skyrocket into full-on catatonic if Freeze can flip Robert Nkemdiche’s commitment from Clemson to Ole Miss. The unanimous top overall player in the country has long been the radar since his older brother Denzel signed with the Rebels last year. Nkemdiche has said that he is a firm pledge to Dabo Swinney and the Tigers, but widespread speculation says that the commitment is anything but final. Renowned as very family orientated, he has stated that playing with his brother in college has been a dream of his. Pair that with the fact that his mother has been anything but pleased with her son’s commitment to Clemson and you have a problem. Anyone in the South can tell you, “if momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”. Nkemdiche has said that a comfortable, family environment is a key factor, something that he has felt with both Swinney and Freeze.

September 22, 2012; New Orleans, LA, USA; Ole Miss Rebels defensive end C.J. Johnson (10) rushes the quarterback against the Tulane Green Wave during a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Ole Miss defeated Tulane 39-0. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE

If the younger Nkemdiche does come to Ole Miss, he will likely start right away a la Jadeveon Clowney at South Carolina. This could force Wommack to switch to a 3-4 like he did against Alabama, moving Johnson to outside linebacker. Junior Mike Marry has been a constant for the team at middle linebacker and all signs point to him returning for his senior year. The ability to count on your middle linebacker has always been essential in the SEC, see Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower. An ideal scenario would be to have team leader and fan favorite DT Shackleford back on the field for his senior season after sitting out the last two campaigns with knee issues. If he can give Freeze 80 percent of the production that he had his sophomore season, the Rebels are in good shape up the middle.

If Shackleford is not able to return to form for his senior season, Ole Miss will rely on Ralph Williams to stack the middle. Williams is quick for his size and does not miss a beat when he fills in for Marry. If Ole Miss does indeed switch to a 3-4, Marry and either Shackleford or Williams will suit the roles just fine.

At the “spur” will be Denzel Nkemdiche. Quickly establishing his own name in the SEC, the redshirt freshman leads or is tied for the lead in tackles (44), tackles for loss with (9.0), forced fumbles (2), and quarterback hurries (2). He has been a vocal leader and is the quintessential “good locker room guy”. He is a heavy hitter and has taken full advantage of his opportunity this year. There is a high ceiling for Nkemdiche and he will only get better as he gets more games under his belt.

A pair of sophomores will have a chance at the final linebacking spot in Keith Lewis and Serderius Bryant. Two highly-touted recruits, they both have struggled to find their spot in the rotation. Lewis is the much bigger player, while Bryant is the faster of the two. It is more likely that Bryant will earn the spot as Freeze’s ideal linebacker is quick to the ball.

Despite NFL talents like Jamarca Samford, Kendrick Lewis, and Marshay Green, the Ole Miss secondary has been the kill-spot for the defense in recent years. A changing of the guard has taken place under Freeze and next year it should take full force. There will be experience, speed, and good footwork at the corner spots in Charles Sawyer and Senquez Golson. Sawyer has transitioned well from safety and an offseason will do him wonders. Golson has improved drastically since the overwhelmed freshman that got disrobed by Trent Richardson last season. If he can shift his primary focus from baseball to football, he could be a playmaker for the defense. Freshmen Anthony Standifer and Quintavious Burdette and sophomore Cliff Coleman will all see time in dime packages as well.

In a year or two, the Ole Miss safety combination could prove to be one of the best in the country. Sophomore Cody Prewitt has emerged as one of the surest tackling players on the team and has registered 44 tackles to go along with his two interceptions. While Prewitt may be the surest tackler, freshman Trae Elston is the hardest tackler. Known for his annihilation of UTEP receivers, Elston has a tenacity that has not been seen in an Ole Miss safety in a long, long time. The production after Prewitt and Elston does not drop off drastically as juniors Brishen Mathews, Frank Crawford, and Dehendret Collins, and freshman Chief Brown will all compete for more playing time. With the possibility of gaining the signatures of Charles Williams and Antonio Conner and the return of Nicolas Brassell, the depth could be even more impressive.

The defense will miss the likes of Grant, Jason Jones, and Joel Kight, but the losses do not outweigh the gained experience. There is no doubt that next fall’s defense will be stronger, faster, and more in-synch than this season. While both are drenched with talent, there is a bes- case scenario and a worst-case.

Best-case:

DE Channing Ward, So.

DT Darious Cummings, Jr.

DE Robert Nkemdiche, Fr.

ILB Mike Marry, Sr.

ILB DT Shackleford, Sr.

OLB CJ Johnson, Jr.

SPUR Denzel Nkemdiche, So.

FCB Nickolas Brassell, Jr.

ROV Trae Elston, So.

FS Cody Prewitt, Jr.

BCB Charles Sawyer, Sr.

 

Worst-Case:

DE CJ Johnson, Jr.

DT Woodrow Hamilton, So.

NT Issac Gross, So.

DE Channing Ward, So.

MLB Mike Marry, Sr.

SPUR Denzel Nkemdiche, So.

HUSKY Dehendret Collins, Sr.

FCB Senquez Golson, Jr.

ROV Trae Elston, So.

FS Cody Prewitt, Jr.

BCB Charles Sawyer, Sr.

 

As you can see, the worst-case scenario is not so bad, and the best-case could go down as the best since the Vaught years. The current team is fun to watch and they get better every game. Mistakes are there, but that is to be expected with any young team under a new coach. Enjoy this team now, but remember, things are only going to get better from here.

 

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Tags: Anthony Standifer Antonio Conner Brishen Mathews Bryon Bennett Carlton Martin Channing Ward Charles Sawyer Charles Williams Chief Brown Cliff Coleman Cody Prewitt Darious Cummings Dehendret Collins Denzel Nkemdiche Dt Shackleford Frank Crawford Issac Gross Joel Kight Keith Lewis Mike Hilton Mike Marry Nickolas Brassell Ole Miss Football Quintavius Burdette Robert Nkemdiche Sec Football Senquez Golson Serderious Bryant Trae Elston Uriah Grant

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