When preseason camp began, one of the primary concerns on the defensive side was the lack of both experience and numbers on the line.
At the two end positions, Rahim Alem and Pep Levingston were pegged as the starting tandem. Redshirt freshmen Chancey Aghayere and Lavar Edwards ran with the two-deep, while Chase Clement, Sam Montgomery, Mike Brockers and Bennie Logan filled out the chart.
On the inside, the race for the starting two spots was between three veterans: Charles Alexander, Al Woods and Drake Nevis. Junior College transfer Akiem Hicks, walk-on Dennis Johnson and freshmen Josh Downs and Chris Davenport battled for playing time behind them.
Tough to imagine, but fast-forward to three weeks into the season and the unit is in an even tougher spot than before.
Levingston – who broke his hand during the preseason – suffered a leg injury in the opener in Seattle and has since missed two starts. Miles said he is not expected to play this weekend.
Despite his youth, Downs was able to work his way into the rotation at tackle. Yet against ULL on Saturday, the Bastrop native went down to injury and was unable to finish. In an attempt to keep a redshirt on Davenport, Haley allowed Johnson – a sophomore walk-on from Amory, Miss. – to take the final snaps in Downs’ absence. Miles said that Downs is not expected to play this weekend, either.
To add fuel to the fire, Hicks - who went down to injury in the preseason and has not dressed out for a game since - is battling the flu. He did not practice on Wednesday, which raises suspicions as to whether the evanescing tackle will go at all this season.
Neither Brockers, Montgomery or Logan has seen action – assumedly in an attempt to keep redshirts, while Clement has been used sparingly despite Levingston’s absence.
For the time being, Aghayere will get the start opposite Alem – where he recorded a pair of stops against ULL that included a tackle for a loss.
With bodies needed in the middle, an end needed to be moved from the outside to help out. The solution, Miles said on Wednesday, could be Brockers – a 6-foot-6, 285-pound freshman out of Houston, Texas.
“I think there is a push to look at Brockers,” he said. “We have tried him at tackle this week. He comes off the football hard, and he is a great big body and has the long arms.”
Brockers would fill in behind Nevis, Alexander and Woods, three veterans who should split the majority of the snaps.
Miles said that Levingston’s return would keep him at defensive end, where he will have to battle Aghayere for the job on the left side.
“I look at it as good competition,” Aghayere said. “Coach always said that you never know what happens after Monday. You could be with the ones on a day and then the twos the next. We don’t know the starters until game time.”
The reviews on Aghayere have been good, which might lend to the staff keeping the first-year starter on the field permanently.
“Chancey has played great,” Alem said following the ULL game. “We are the most prepared defensive line in the country, and it showed with the young guys like that. He prepared well and was ready to play.”
If they are among the most prepared units in the country, then it should show with an improved effort each Saturday.
So far that has been the case. On the ground, the Tigers allowed 157 yards to Washington, 122 to Vanderbilt and 109 to ULL.
Yet the lack of pressure on passing plays, especially from the line, is the first thing that most of the Tiger defenders point to when they talk of needed improvement.
Linebacker Kelvin Sheppard said that this weekend brings the perfect opportunity to prove their worth.
“I look across the board at our line, and I really believe guys like Rahim are among the best pass rushers in the entire country,” he said. “I see them on film all the time, and they can really get after it. With the spread, you have to be cautious of the screen game. We have focused on keeping that in check a good bit in these opening games, so if there were a reason for the lack of pressure, that could be one.
“The pass rush can definitely pick up, regardless,” he added. “We will start to blitz a lot and use some different packages, so I think both the pressure and sacks will pick up. This weekend is a great place to start.”
With their first SEC road game on tap in Starkville on Saturday, Miles said that the performance would once again need to be the Tigers’ best to date.
“Marked improvement must take place,” he said. “They have to understand calls. They have been out of position at times.
“We have gone six quarters without allowing a touchdown; so they are playing better.”