Ole Miss Preview: Defense

Ole Miss rebounded from a rough start to put together a strong defensive year in 2012. How have the Rebels looked in 2013?

After somewhat of a rocky start — including 66 points given up to Texas — Ole Miss rallied for a pretty respectable defensive season a year ago, finishing 21st in defensive S&P+, ranking fourth nationally with 103 tackles for loss, making 38 sacks and allowing just 3.5 yards per carry. It was a great rallying point for defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, who likes to load up the box and play zone.

And to start off this year, the Rebels (2-0, 1-0 SEC) have once again had a bit of a rough start. While S&P+ can be silly to use because of the adjustment for competition — and we don't know much about who is actually competition at this point — Ole Miss ranks 57th in defensive S&P+ and 74th in defensive S&P, without the opponent adjustment.

That includes rough ranks in both defensive passing S&P (99th) and passing downs S&P (106th), part of which probably comes from the fact that Ole Miss hasn't gotten to the quarterback at the same level as last year. The Rebels have just three sacks in two games — granted, Texas only has two — and none of those Ole Miss sacks have come from players who are listed as starters for Saturday's game.

Just looking at the superficials, Ole Miss has one of the more interesting defenses I've seen. Many teams go with smaller defenses, for speed. Others go with larger defenses, for power. Some, like Alabama, can have both. Others rely on a mix depending on the position, pairing a giant line with smaller linebackers who can run sideline-to-sideline and pursue.

But Ole Miss has a hodgepodge. Don't believe me? One defensive end would most certainly be classified as massive at 6-5 294. The other defensive end would qualify as small on an FCS team at 6-3 230. A 270-pound defensive tackle rotates with a 302-pounder. And a 300-pound nose tackle sits just ahead of a 250-pound player. One linebacker is 250 pounds, another, at 5-9 215, is smaller than the Rebels' massive free safety, who is 6-2 220. It certainly makes for a fascinating dynamic.

Ole Miss's defense really started to take off a year ago when Issac Gross (6-1 250) took over at nose tackle after the Texas contest. So many SEC offenses, like Alabama's, are built around massive players root-hogging the other team's massive players out of place. Where Gross flipped the script was that opposing offensive linemen really struggled to put their hands on him. Ole Miss became a fun-to-watch, stunt-happy defense on the front and used its quickness to create penetration and mess up blocking schemes.

That Gross — who still leads the team in sacks this season with 1.5 — is now listed as a backup is a testament to the development of players around him, and the increased depth defensively. Two of the defensive line's top eight are newcomers, while other players in the program have stepped in to help as well. The headliner, of course, is the nation's No. 1 recruit in the 2013 class, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche (6-5 294). Nkemdiche leads Ole Miss with three tackles for loss, and he flashed his freakish athleticism for his size against Vanderbilt, running a fake punt for 11 yards and a first down. It will be interesting to see how he settles in against Texas — Nkemdiche has been a force against the run early, but doesn't have any sacks or hurries so far.

Opposite Nkemdiche is C.J. Johnson (6-3 230), the Rebels' top pass-rusher from a year ago with 6.5 sacks. Byron Bennett (6-2 270), who started six games a year ago, is back at defensive tackle, though he hasn't been much of a playmaker, making just nine stops last year (six assisted) and one assisted tackle this year. Woodrow Hamilton (6-3 300) was a rotational guy a year ago, and is now listed ahead of Gross, though they rotate at the position. Gross started seven games last year, making 40 tackles, including 10 for loss. Big-time JUCO transfer Lavon Hooks (6-4 302) is listed behind Bennett at defensive tackle, and it might just be a matter of time there. Cameron Whigham (6-3 255) is a solid rotational piece behind Johnson, while Carlos Thompson (6-4 240) and former five-star recruit Channing Ward (6-4 260) play behind Nkemdiche. Ward and Thompson have combined for Ole Miss's other 1.5 sacks this year.

Missing Denzel Nkemdiche (5-11 207), a preseason first-team All-SEC pick, with injury, is huge. Nkemdiche had 82 tackles, including 13.0 tackles for loss, three interceptions and four forced fumbles a year ago. He was a big pickup for the Rebels in the 2011 class, and not just because his signing brought in younger brother Robert a few years later. Denzel is a freak in his own right, an absolutely explosive athlete who doesn't just have cornerback speed, but who brings physicality and torque as a hitter of a player much heavier. He was injured in the opener against Vanderbilt, and he's expected back at around mid-season.

For now, his speed and versatility are missed, and he's currently replaced at the Stinger linebacker (WILL) position by Serderius Bryant (5-9 215). Bryant debuted the season's second game against Southeast Missouri and played well, making 15 tackles, which is enough to lead the team for the season. How will he fare against a non-FCS opponent? Mike Marry (6-3 250) is the big man in the middle. He's not afraid to take on blocks, and he had 78 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss last year. The Wolf linebacker (SAM) spot is in the hands of Florida product Keith Lewis, who had 22 tackles in 2012. But Ole Miss generally seems to play a ton of nickel, with the Husky (nickelback) replacing the Wolf. Five-star Antonio Conner (6-1 210), the nation's No. 3 safety in 2013, per Scout.com, handles those duties. He's a big-time talent, somebody who can run and cover like a DB, but has linebacker size. Conner picked off a pass against Vanderbilt, and has seven tackles so far.

Cornerback Charles Sawyer (5-11 178) started every game in 2011 and 2012, but has been limited with a shoulder injury and was charged with a DUI after this past weekend's game. He won't travel with the team. That leaves the Rebels looking awfully small at cornerback, with Senquez Golson (5-9 193) and Mike Hilton (5-8 182) listed as the starters. Both are experienced, as they combined for 11 starts a year ago. Golson tied for the team lead last year with three, while Hilton has nine tackles, including two for loss, this season. Cody Prewitt (6-2 220) makes big plays at safety. Prewitt was Ole Miss's second-leading tackler a year ago, and he's the second-leading tackler again this year. He has made 14 tackles with two interceptions and a forced fumble already in 2013, after picking off two and forcing two fumbles in 13 games in 2012. Chief Brown (6-1 200) plays the Rover, or strong safety, position. He started one game last year and has five tackles this year.

Tyler Campbell (6-2 230) is off to a big start at punter. Campbell is averaging a whopping 47.2 yards per punt, with half of his six punts traveling 50 or more yards. The good news is that he's dropped two punts inside the 20. The bad news is that he's had two touchbacks as well.

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