Front Focus

In the second in a series of stories with Ole Miss DC Dave Wommack, we take a look at the Rebel defensive line.

Wommack began his position-by-position preseason analysis where all defenses start – up front with the big boys.

Inside, all eyes have been, and will be his entire career here, on former consensus number one recruit in the nation, Defensive Tackle Robert Nkemdiche.

“I don’t care if you are the number one player in the country, it is very difficult to play on this level at defensive end or defensive tackle – he played both last year – as a true freshman. The expectations for him were never realistic,” Wommack began. “Due to injuries up front, we were forced to move him around some and that, frankly, hindered his development some.

“In the heat of the battle, at times and as all freshmen do, his answer to getting the job done was reverting back to what he did in high school and that was to get away from technique and just play bullish, which doesn’t work. That’s very common. This past spring, Robert stayed with his technique and really developed. Leaving him in one position throughout spring also helped him. I saw excellent development and improvement from him in spring and I think that will show in drastic improvement this season.”

Senior Bryon Bennett, a seasoned veteran, had a good spring behind Nkemdiche, is expected to play “a lot” and can swing between DT and nose.

“Bryon is a really talented guy who has figured out that it’s not just about starting. We want to play 9-10 guys up front and there are plenty of reps for everyone. Every snap is a man-to-man battle and you can’t go out there and play every single snap like you did in high school and be as effective as you need to be,” Dave stated. “Once he matured and figured that out, Bryon has shown more leadership and more ‘team,’ if you will, and it’s showing up in his performance. He will be important to our efforts.”

At nose, Issac Gross enters his junior year healthy after an injury-riddled sophomore season and Woodrow Hamilton, who missed spring with injury, is now back in the fold.

“Issac provides a lot of quickness and twitch to our DL. He’s a playmaker. We need him to stay healthy. There was so much difference in him in the spring when he was healthy compared to last fall when he was hobbled most of the year,” noted Wommack. “Woody is so strong and is not just an anchor guy. He can sit in there and hold up if he needs to and be an anchor, but he’s quick too. He can be a force for us because he is very difficult to block due to his dual capabilities.

“Herbert Moore is a guy we should get some snaps out of, but in the offseason the goal for him was to get in better physical condition. We will see how that went when August rolls around. Lavon Hooks is also in the mix and a guy we’d feel comfortable putting in there. Also, I am very excited about freshman Breeland Speaks. We believe, in time, he is going to be a horse inside for us and it may happen sooner than even we anticipate.”

Outside, at the defensive end slots, Wommack began his preseason assessment with Johnson. As Dave explained, losing C.J. changed the whole dynamic of the Rebel defense last season, but the talented junior was healthy and productive in spring training and is healthy as the season nears.

“C.J. brings so much energy to the table, but just as importantly is that he just has a knack for rushing the passer. It’s innate with him,” Dave evaluated. “Arguably, to me, he was our best defensive player our first year here and he creates problems for opposing offenses. Sometimes it did not show in his numbers because opposing teams recognized his ability and would shade their protection to him, which turned other players loose at times.

“Last year, being hobbled, he just wasn’t the same guy and it was a smart decision to redshirt him. I look for him to have a big year. He’s smart, he understands what we are doing, he doesn’t make many mistakes and he’s a playmaker. He has also developed into a very good vocal leader.”

Unlike last year, however, the Rebels have some viable “insurance” behind Johnson in the form of true freshman Marquis Haynes, who went through spring training and lit things up, and John Youngblood, now a wily veteran who can be more of an anchor DE.

“Youngblood can play both sides. He does what you coach him to do and I totally trust him. He won’t make any mistakes and he can make plays,” Dave allowed. “Marquis really excites me. He’s one of the fastest pass rushers I have ever seen. He totally has a knack for it. If you try to block him with one guy, it’s going to be a long night for you. He’s C.J. two years ago, but he has more speed. He’s also strong, so don’t be deceived by his size. He can hold up in there against the run.

“There will be times when we have C.J. and Marquis on the field at the same time. I envision that as double trouble for offenses and will be surprised if that duo is not nightmarish for offenses to deal with.”

On the other side, Thompson and Fadol Brown, another one of the “new seven” who participated in spring, had a back-and-forth battle all spring training. One day, Fadol would be number one, the next Carlos would be at the top. A very healthy situation for that position.

“The deal with Carlos is staying healthy. When he is healthy and can get it rolling, he can do great things. If he can, that will be a huge plus for us,” said Dave. “Fadol is more athletic than the guys we have been playing at Bandit. I love Whig (Cameron Whigham) and what he did for us last year. He was a heckuva player I’d love to have back, but Fadol is Whig with more athletic ability.

“He will be very good in run support and we expect him to be a very good pass rusher as well, a commodity we just did not have last year from that position, even as good and valuable as Whig was for us. Again, this is not a knock on Cameron, at all, we just expect more dimension from Fadol.”

Wommack is also excited to see what true frosh Gerrald McDowell can contribute to the defense in his rookie campaign.

“I want us to be 2 ½-3 deep up front and that lends itself to someone of his ability, depending on how quickly he learns everything, to have a role in our defense quickly,” added Wommack. “We think he can play either end as well. We anticipate him being physical against the run and have some twitch in the pass rush schemes. He and Breeland are definitely the guys I am anticipating making a big push up front for playing time.”

Barring any catastrophic injuries, Wommack feels pretty good up front for 2014.

“We feel like we have developed some depth, we feel like we have talent, we feel we can trust and use 9-10 guys in most every situation and get production, and we feel like the guys we have can allow us to do all the things we want to do as coaches,” Wommack noted. “A lot of it comes back to health, but if we can stay healthy up front, I think we have a chance to be a very good unit and I’m excited to get going and see how this group meshes, develops continuity and becomes a quality unit.

“I think it goes without saying that we are a lot further along now, due to numbers and experience, than we have been at any time since we have been here. Again, we are not a finished product and we can always use more of everything, but I think we have come a long way and I think (DL Coach) Chris Kiffin has done a really fine job of bringing them all along and piecing everything together to get the most out of the available players we have.”

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