Spirit's Take

The Ole Miss football team took a positive, proactive approach to spring football, resulting in a 15-day session which saw a lot accomplished as they developed the rough draft of the 2014 team. In short, it was one of the most productive springs we've covered in our 30-plus years on the Rebel beat. Today, a closer look at the defense based on the results of spring training.

The limitation of the 2013 defense, at the lowest common denominator, was an overall lack of pressure brought about by a lack of personnel capable of bringing the heat.

Some of that was due to not having a solid two-deep depth chart, some of it was brought about by youth and some of it was brought about by two or three key injuries, namely DEs C.J. Johnson and Carlos Thompson, the only true speed rushers on last year's roster.

Defensive Coordinator Dave Wommack had two choices – try to create pressure by sending linebackers, safeties or an occasional cornerback – a gamble that leaves one vulnerable if picked up, or call conservative plays and hope the troops did not get worn down with a bend-but-don't-break mindset.

Most of the time, he – with Coach Hugh Freeze's blessing – opted for the latter. As a staff, they felt that philosophy gave the team the best chance to win, which it did except in a couple of games. Not to point fingers as one of Freeze's mottos is that they win and lose as a team, but for the sake of making a point, one could legitimately argue it was, in fact, a lack of offensive production in a couple of the games that led to the losses.

Rehashing completed and aside, it's easy to see why one of the most important defensive goals of spring training was to get the aggression back and to get pressure from the front four.

It's stating the obvious, but when you can get pressure from your front four, everything changes – everything. The more uncomfortable you can make an offense with the front four, the more they are prone to make mistakes and defenses feed off of mistakes in the form of turnovers and big plays that put offenses behind the chains in bad down-and-distance situations.

Granted, this spring the Rebel defensive front was going against a mostly revamped, and somewhat inexperienced OL that will take time to gel, but even discounting for that, they showed their true colors and here's why.

DT Robert Nkemdiche is no longer a hesitant, unsure freshman. He's confident in what he is doing and is playing faster. Couple that with unnatural athletic ability and he's quickly becoming a force. DT Issac Gross never was "right" last year, struggling most of the season rehabbing from double sports hernia procedures. He's "right" now and showing the same uncanny explosiveness he exhibited his freshman year in 2012.

Staying on the inside of the DL, it appears Bryon Bennett, who slumped last year, has renewed vigor for the game as he approaches his final season and it's showing in his output. His ability has never been questioned. RS freshman Herbert Moore and Lavon Hooks have also shown run-stopping ability and capabilities of being solid backups who can be trusted to come in and do the job. And the big P.S. – Woodrow Hamilton, a bull in the middle, wasn't even in the picture this spring, rehabbing a broken foot.

Robert Nkemdiche
File Photo

On the outside, at the defensive end slots, Johnson has taken over, in more ways than one. He's dangerous as a pass rusher and he has become a vocal leader of the defense. The battles he and LT Laremy Tunsil have had this spring have been epic. C.J.'s presence changes the game. In this humble opinion, Johnson is an elite, high caliber, collegiate player. C.J. was not the only player to impact the DE slots in spring though.

Thompson had a very good spring and has also caused some disruption and the two "newcomers" – Fadol Brown and Marquis Haynes – both have the physical skills to be, very soon, in the "special" category. It was expected of Fadol, who is also big enough to play inside, but Haynes may be the surprise of spring training, at any position. Speed, speed and more speed. John Youngblood also showed he is capable of being a solid contributor and don't forget – if needed – D.T. Shackelford can slide down from his middle linebacker slot and apply pressure.

Defensive Line Coach Chris Kiffin, it appears from the outside looking in, will have the capability to mix and match based on what the defense needs to stop different opponents and different styles. He can field a quick front, a big front or a combination of both when he needs it and feel confident they can do the job. That's a luxury he did not have a year ago.

The linebacker slots also look "crowded," even though some of them do not have much experience yet.

Deterrian Shackelford has a new name, but he seems to be back in his "old," pre-injury form in the middle. For the most part, he now has a firm grasp of the defense and he's gotten his stinger back. A confident Shackelford has also taken on more of a leadership role this spring, which is the D.T. we all remember. He was recently named the Chucky Mullins Courage Award winner and that speaks volumes about his impact in spring training.

Even though Shackelford seems to be back to where he was physically and ahead mentally, he has not been guaranteed a starting slot. He's getting heat from JUCO transfer Christian Russell and Temario Strong. The more they learn, the more likely they are to be in the picture at MLB and they both made solid strides in that direction in spring training. Like fellow mid-year player Haynes, speed is Russell's calling card.

Cody Prewitt
File Photo

Seniors Keith Lewis and Serderius Bryant both had productive springs on the outside in Denzel Nkemdiche's absence. Being able to hone in on one position has raised Keith's game and "Bird" has been a stellar player for a while, leading the team in tackles last year. Also, behind them, the cupboard is not bare. RS frosh Ray Ray Smith needs to get more physical, and he will, and Tayler Polk just needs to bide his time and keep doing what he is doing. (Prediction: Polk will be a huge part of the special teams in 2014.)

The goal for the Husky, Rover and Free Safety slots for spring training was to develop a solid two-deep. From what we have seen, mission accomplished.

Returning All-American Cody Prewitt at free is a good starting point, but don't be surprised if true freshman C.J. Hampton gets a few series each game as well to give Cody a breather and keep him fresh and healthy. Hampton is a quick study and mature. He's also a smooth and physical athlete. He'll be hard to keep off the field, it says here.

At Rover, there is a major battle going on between incumbent Trae Elston and redshirt sophomore Anthony Alford. Feel comfortable, Reb fans, with either and expect both to play substantially.

At Husky, Tony Conner has made a Robert Nkemdiche move in terms of being more aware, more comfortable with his assignments and playing faster. Chief Brown, a very capable veteran, seems at home in his new position and excels in the man coverage aspect of Husky.

Cornerback remains a little bit of an issue, but not as much as in the past. The talent is better, and a couple have good experience. It's just a matter of getting a couple of more "coached up" and them gaining real time experience.

Senquez Golson, when healthy, has been very solid, but he missed about half of spring with a nagging hamstring and a stomach virus. Mike Hilton's experience shows and his reliability has been high on the coaches' list as positives for the defense. Some players just have a feel for the game – Hilton is one of those players. Derrick Jones got a taste of CB last year and got all he wanted this spring. The hundreds of reps he has gotten has helped, but more polish in August is needed. A star in the making. Kailo Moore, who moved over from RB this spring, has shown outstanding potential and flashes, but is not a finished product – yet. Veteran Cliff Coleman is wily, improved and reliable, and he knows how to play the position. He will be leaned on heavily while the youngsters continue learning. Carlos Davis, a stalwart on special teams, also made a good move in spring.

Overall, the Reb defense, at least what we were able to see in spring training, was very good. They created a lot of pressure and a lot of turnovers throughout spring and it wasn't because the Rebel offense was not competitive.

What was probably most apparent was the position-by-position upgrade in overall speed on the field. This has the makings of a fast defense.

The 2014 Ole Miss defense has the earmarks of a very good unit if they all stay on the path they traversed in spring and have a relatively healthy year.

Our Take: Thumbs up for the defense in spring training. There's more quality depth for the coaches to work with and a good mix of experience and talented youth. With the personnel Wommack has at his disposal, look for a more aggressive approach in 2014.

Next: Our take on the offense.

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