Gross Saw It Coming

Ole Miss junior Defensive Tackle Issac Gross has been through some rough spots during his career as the Ole Miss defense has developed, but he always knew one day they would be a formidable unit. That time has come.

The highly-touted and highly-rated Ole Miss defense didn't happen overnight.

It took time, patience, recruiting and belief to build it to the point it is now - number one in the SEC in scoring defense, allowing just 13.3 points a game through the halfway mark of the season.

But one player, junior Defensive Tackle Issac Gross, said he saw it coming from the moment he stepped on campus in the summer of 2012.

"I had a feeling as soon as I got here that we would be good on defense," Gross said. "It just grew over time - my class, the class behind mine - I could see a bond developing quickly.

"We hung out more together outside of football and class. We would go to each others houses and have cookouts or just hang out. It was a whole team thing - not just your position or your side of the ball. We were together and we liked that feeling that we had each others backs. It makes a lot of things easier and made team development smoother."

Reflecting, Issac had a stellar freshman year, earning Freshman All-American and really bursting on the scene with a 6-tackle, 1-sack effort against Alabama.

The Rebels lost the game 33-14, but they served notice, in some ways, that the future was bright. Gross remembers it vividly.

"They didn't physically beat us," said Gross. "We just made a lot of mistakes, like young defenses do. We knew we were on the right path."

Gross' progress was stymied some when he suffered a sports hernia that didn't heal as well or as quickly as anticipated after surgery. He missed most of the offseason workouts and spring training, but he played quality football in 2013, despite having some lingering affects of the surgery in the early part of the season.

In the spring of this year, he came back full bore and won the starting nose tackle spot, but was again sidetracked with a neck injury on the first day of pads in August practice.

"It was the last play of the day and I raised up too high and an offensive lineman and I made helmet-to-helmet contact. My head was in a bind and as soon as the whistle blew, I knew something was wrong, but I didn't pay much attention to it," he said. "The next day, I was determined to practice and not miss anything, but I couldn't go."

The injury cost him all of August drills and senior Bryon Bennett, a rejuvenated Bennett, earned the starting nod while Gross recovered.

During that time, there were rumors flying everywhere that Gross was out for the season, that he had nerve damage and his injury could be career-ending, but he said he never felt that way.

"It was hard to sit out and not get to play against Boise State. I didn't want to miss anything and that took a lot out of me," Issac said. "There was talk about me redshirting, and I would have done it if I needed to for the team, but that's not what I wanted if I could go.

"I'm ready to go now. That's what matters - being a part of this team and this defense."

Now, Bennett and Gross split time at nose tackle, along with junior Woodrow Hamilton, and all is well, but despite the outstanding results of the first six games, Issac thinks the Rebel defense can get even better.

"We can improve in every phase of the defense. We want to be number one in everything - run defense, pass defense, turnover margin, third-down efficiency, every category," he explained. "Even when we become number one, we want to stay there and keep building and improving."

Gross is a competitor and he wants to play every snap possible, but he understands - and buys into - the rotation system that limits individual reps, but keeps everyone fresh.

"I want to play as many snaps as I can, but the way Coach (Chris) Kiffin has us set up with the rotation is working. Everyone has a job to do and when our number is called, we have to be ready to perform and do our jobs," he noted. "We are hungry, but we are also a team and whatever is best for the team is what we all want. It goes back to that bond we have developed.

"All I know is that when I am on the field, I am going to give it all I've got for as many snaps as I get and I am going to be pulling for whoever is in the game when I am not."

The relentless pursuit of the ball the Rebel defense has exhibited so far is just in their nature, Gross says.

"Everybody wants to get after the ball, no matter where it goes, and we are going to get it," Gross said emphatically. "Everybody wants that tackle. Everybody is in a feeding frenzy like a shark. We all want to come in here on Sunday afternoon during our 'truth' session of watching film and see a swarm of Rebels at the ball.

"We know there won't be just one guy there. If I make a tackle, I know there are 10 more guys there ready to make it if I don't. That's how you play defense."

Three years ago, Issac Gross had a feeling, a feeling that one day the Rebel defense would be special.

He didn't know how long it would take, but he knew he wanted to be a part of the process of getting there and then enjoy it when it did.

That time has come.


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