When trying to look forward to next year regarding the 2015 Ole Miss defense, one cannot discount the magnitude of losing FS Cody Prewitt, CB Senquez Golson, MLB D.T. Shackelford and a few others to graduation.
We're talking about two First-Team All-Americans (Cody in 2013 and Senquez in 2014) and the "spiritual leader" in D.T.
When you throw in DTs Bryon Bennett and Lavon Hooks, OLBs Serderius Bryant and Keith Lewis, and DE Carlos Thompson one, on the surface, might think it will be hard to duplicate 2014. . .
. . . if you didn't know what/who was waiting in the wings.
While it may sound ridiculously optimistic to some, on paper, the 2015 defense has, drum roll please, a chance to be even better than their 2014 brothers.
Heads are shaking and eyes are rolling, I'm sure, but before you judge that statement, let me state the case.
First and foremost, there are a lot of proven performers returning, players who will have another year of SEC battles under their belts and will show even more improvement.
The list is too long to name them all, but Robert Nkemdiche, C.J. Johnson, Tony Conner, Mike Hilton, Trae Elston, Issac Gross, and Denzel Nkemdiche are names of players who roll off the tongue easily and will have sharper claws and longer teeth in 2015. In short, a damn good starting point.
Those guys already have a lot of wins, and battle scars, to take into the season. That kind of experience is invaluable.
Then you have rising stars, the first on my list being DE Marquis Haynes and nicely segwaying into the likes of DE Fadol Brown, DT Woodrow Hamilton and MLB Christian Russell, who all showed flashes of being capable of moving their games up at least one notch in 2015.
Then, the Rebels can attack with some of the most promising - as a group - newcomers we have seen around here since, well, Rob and boys burst on the scene.
Since he didn't play last year, CB Tee Shepard certainly fits in this category. Don't be surprised if he doesn't immediately take over for Golson. JUCO CB Tony Bridges is another who will most likely battle it out with another very promising youngster in the form of Kendarius Webster, who played quite a bit of solid football toward the end of last season as a true freshman.
DT. D.J. Jones has generated as much excitement inside the football camp as any player in recent years. Coupled with redshirt freshman Breeland Speaks, who impressed everyone on the scout team all last season, the Rebels have probably upgraded - possibly substantially - on the inside of the D-Line.
On the edge, DE Victor Evans was getting Speaks-like praise from the offensive coaches with his work on the scout team defense all season as well. The wild card will be JUCO LB Terry Caldwell - who can play inside or outside. Will he be as good as the Reb defensive coaches project? If he is, winner-winner-chicken-dinner at two positions that need help.
And then you have the guys on the verge of blossoming - the already-mentioned Webster; the Moore twins, who played some as true frosh are on the brink of breaking out; CB Kailo Moore, who is expected to make giant leaps this spring in his technique and already possesses plenty of speed to be a dandy; and FS C.J. Hampton, who got better and better as the year progressed as Prewitt's protege.
We haven't even mentioned the likes of DE Channing Ward, MLB Temario Strong, DE John Youngblood, OLB Tayler Polk, S Chief Brown, OLB/MLB DeMarquis Gates, DE Garrald McDowell or CB Carlos Davis - all with proven capabilities or a solid upside. (Apologies to any omissions.)
And what if a couple of the true freshmen that will sign in February come in and make an instant impact? Bonus.
It will be difficult to replace Prewitt's impact of getting everyone "lined up," so to speak, but look for Elston to fill that roll capably. It will be hard for anyone to top the 10 interceptions and consistent play of Golson, but there's a lot of excitement surrounding Shepard and Bridges.
It will be interesting to see who can bring the dynamic leadership to the table that D.T. and Cody gave the squad, but Johnson and Hilton and Elston and the Nkemdiches are not wallflowers in that department. They have all grown into either vocal or by-example leaders who should carry that torch into next season.
The 2014 defense, for the most part, was a special unit, a unit that will be hard to duplicate or better, not only because of the cold, hard numbers but because of the chemistry and unity they developed.
But my belief is that the 2015 defense - if relatively healthy - will be better up front and will be faster and more athletic on the back end.
If they play their cards right, they have the makings to be better than the 2014 defense, and that's saying a lot.
But I'll be the first to say it.
Chide me later if I'm proven wrong.
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