Getting Closer

In the rough world of "the trenches" in the SEC, you can never have too many able bodies. The old adage the more the merrier definitely applies. Ole Miss Defensive Line Coach Chris Kiffin, after watching his group in spring training, feels he is closer to that goal than ever.

"Two-deep."

It's easy to spout, but sometimes difficult to accomplish and it certainly doesn't happen overnight, but after two years of pounding the rock, Ole Miss DL Coach Chris Kiffin feels his positions are close to that, if not there.

"We didn't have (DT) Woody (Hamilton) all spring due to a broken foot and that was disappointing, but we did get (DE) C.J. (Johnson) and (DE) Carlos Thompson back and that helped a lot," noted Kiffin. "I feel really good about the first group coming out of spring training and this is really the first time we have had a true two-deep at every position.

"There's no doubt, they brought it every day. The energy was there every single day. They see the possibility of doing something special next year and brought that attitude to spring drills."

Right now, Johnson and true freshman Marquis Haynes are holding down one DE slot with Haynes being the "surprise" of spring training.

"We all know what a healthy C.J. can do and he did it in spring, but the bonus this spring was getting a true freshman in here (Haynes) who looks like he is going to be a real player quickly and for a lot of years," noted Kiffin. "Carlos and John Youngblood can play either end due to their experience and that is another form of depth for us. Both of them did a nice job and I feel I can count on them to produce where needed. John is our utility guy and we know he'll be ready when his number is called."


Chris Kiffin
File Photo

At the other end, Fadol Brown and Thompson are competing for the top spot and, thus far, it's a dead heat.

"It's really close between those two. Fadol is bigger and is stouter against the run right now, but Carlos is a good pass rusher and has more time in the system. He knows more of what we want," Kiffin continued. "That was probably the best competition of the spring on defense. They battled and changed starters every week based on their Saturday scrimmage results."

On the inside, it starts with sophomore Robert Nkemdiche. He was expected to make a big comfort level jump and Kiffin said he did in spring.

"Robert's knowledge of the game increased a lot. He understands blocking schemes now, he's playing with better technique and he's learned to just do his job and not try to do everyone else's," Kiffin explained. "Last year, there were times he resorted back to high school and would try to make every play. He now realizes he doesn't have to and if he does his job, the defense will work and he will ultimately make more plays."

At the other tackle slot, Issac Gross made a nice comeback from an injury-riddled 2013 season where he was never really 100%.

"He had to pick up the slack with Woody out and he did it. He got a lot of reps and it helped his game. It also helped that he is finally healthy," noted Kiffin. "Our goal is for him to add some quality weight this summer. It will be his first full offseason since he has been here and we expect him to make big physical strides."

Senior Bryon Bennett started off the 2013 season strong, but went in a tailspin at the end of the year. The "old" Bryon Bennett returned in spring training.

"We sat him down and sort of gave him an ultimatum that it was all up to him. He could bust his tail and really help this team by being like a sixth man in basketball – very valuable to us – or he could choose not to and have an uneventful senior season," Kiffin explained.


Bryon Bennett
File Photo

"He got his stuff together and became more accountable off the field, in meetings and on the field. He had a very good spring and will be a big part of our plan if he stays on this path. If you can have a dedicated Bryon as your second three-technique, you have some good things going for you."

RS freshman Herbert Moore and senior Lavon Hooks also made a positive impression on Kiffin, despite Hooks being hobbled a lot in spring due to a bum ankle.

"Herbert got a chance to compete and is a work in progress. He needs to continue to drop pounds and get in better shape, but his technique has gotten so much better since he has been here. He understands the nosetackle position now. He has a bright future. He just needs to continue to grind one day at a time," Kiffin added. "Lavon had a frustrating spring due to his ankle injury. We need him healthy for his final August because we know he can add quality depth to our group."

Overview: Johnson being back is huge. From a leadership and performance standpoint, he is the driving force of the DL. Nkemdiche being more mature in his play, Gross being healthy, getting Hamilton back in fall camp, Brown and Thompson providing different skill sets to the other DE slot, Bennett getting back on track, Moore and Hooks developing and Haynes being a dynamic playmaker all point to the Rebel DL being a salty group in 2014.


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