After leading the nation in scoring defense – the only defensive statistic that matters, the Rebels return a lot of key players, but there were also some losses of players who were tried and true playmakers, including First-Team All-Americans S Cody Prewitt and CB Senquez Golson, 6th year leader MLB D.T. Shackelford, LB Keith Lewis, DTs Bryon Bennett and Lavon Hooks, DE Carlos Thompson and LB Serderius “Bird” Bryant.
Having said that, Ole Miss Defensive Coordinator Dave Wommack doesn’t look at the 2015 defense and think “tough act to follow.”
“Number one is number one – there is no better stat in defensive football than being number one in scoring defense,” Wommack conceded, “but I think we can still improve our defense. We can get better in the fundamentals and in several areas.
“You never want to be a one-time show. You always want to get better, and we can.”
Dave’s number one priority for spring training will be centered around the intangibles.
“Spring training is when you develop your chemistry and your leadership,” he explained. “We lost some great leaders last year in Cody and D.T. and it will be important to see who replaces them in that role. In spring, I will be very anxious to see who wants to take charge and lead.
“From an athletic standpoint, we have candidates who can step in and replace those guys, in my opinion, but it’s difficult to duplicate the leadership they provided and the chemistry they fostered. To have a great unit, you have to have great chemistry and leadership and we had those things last year. Who will it be this year? A lot of that will be developed in spring training.”
For the gazillionth time, it all starts up front. So what of the Rebs’ defensive front? On paper, the best word to describe them may be “formidable.” Some are even reading the tea leaves and suggesting “dominant.”
“There is no reason we can’t be productive up front, barring injury of course,” Dave continued. “(DT Coach) Chris (Kiffin) has done a great job of developing those guys and I feel we’ve done an excellent job of continuing to recruit quality players for the DL. In this league, if you have a good defensive line, you have a chance to have a good defense and I believe we will have one.”
Certainly, it would be appropriate to touch on the returning stalwarts – DT Robert Nkemdiche, DT Issac Gross, DE C.J. Johnson, DE Marquis Haynes, DE Fadol Brown, not to mention Woodrow Hamilton and John Youngblood, but Wommack already knows what they can do as spring training starts.
“I’m not saying all those guys can’t improve, but we have a good feel for their abilities. The guys that excite me to learn more about in spring are JUCO signee D.J. Jones and redshirt freshmen Breeland Speaks and Victor Evans,” Wommack said. “Of course I’m excited to have the veterans back – they will be the backbone of our defense. They are proven, productive players who have experience and will only get better. You can’t thrive without that type of maturity in your lineup. Their value is off the charts, but moving forward, I can’t wait to watch those ‘new’ three’ work and blend in.”
What kind of shot in the arm does he anticipate from those three? Major.
“I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth repeating. When we were scouting East Mississippi CC last year, I thought the best defensive lineman on the team was D.J. and two guys off that DL signed with Alabama last year,” noted Dave with a mouthful. “I am ecstatic about having him on our team. He will be a great defensive tackle here, I believe. He’s wide, strong and quick. He has Issac Gross-type quickness in a 300-pound body.
“I am also anxious to see Breeland and Victor turn it up now that they now they are no longer redshirts and they will be competing to be in the rotation. I think (S&C Coach) Paul (Jackson) and his staff have done a great job of getting them ready to go. They are both very explosive athletes and they should be ready to compete for playing time. Another youngster who intrigues me is DE Garrald McDowell, a guy who could eventually move inside if he continues growing. We will keep a close eye on him as well.”
The next level, linebackers, seems a little trickier and not as concrete from the outside looking in, but Wommack expressed confidence those slots will be filled nicely in the long haul, starting with spring.
Note: Wommack will be coaching the linebackers this year. He has been the safeties coach for three years, but when Tom Allen left and Corey Batoon was promoted, Dave opted to go back to the middle of the defense, an area he’s most comfortable handling as he has done in the past.
“There’s no question we have some big shoes to fill at linebacker with D.T., Serderius (Bryant) and Keith (Lewis) leaving, but that is the beauty of college football – someone leaves and someone has to step up,” Dave noted. “The guys who I am anxious to see how they respond to the challenge are MLB Christian Russell, DeMarquis Gates and JUCO signee Terry Caldwell.
“Christian should be the guy at Mike. He paid his dues learning last season and he’s been very studious in the offseason getting ready for spring training. He’s got more speed than D.T. and he has some experience. The question that remains to be seen is if he can set the defense and handle the mental rigors of being ‘the guy’ in the middle. You see this a lot with JUCOs – it usually takes a year before they can get a mentally taxing position down pat, but he’s on course to getting that done.
“DeMarquis is a kid I think can be special. His challenge will also be being able to think and play fast. He got his feet wet last year and that helped, but he needs to take a big step forward in his understanding of what we want, which I think he will. As for Terry, I think he was underrated coming out of junior college. To me, he’s a bigger, twitchier Keith Lewis. He’s not quite as fast as Keith, but he can run. I think he could be one of the surprises of spring.”
Wommack’s confidence is also bolstered by the inclusion of one Denzel Nkemdiche, who should be ready for at least partial participation in spring training at the Stinger (OLB) slot.
“I’m not sure he will be 100%, but it will be good to have him back in the fold in some capacity and to know he should be ready for the summer offseason and August practice. We know what he can do,” said Wommack. “I am also intrigued by Tayler Polk. He’s a kid who will do everything he can to get on the field. He does everything right and is a heady player. Last spring, he was very productive. It is hard to keep a player like him off the field.”
Another factor that keeps Wommack’s enthusiasm high in regard to the linebacker slots is the pool of players he has to choose from.
“While the LB slots look to be the most challenging aspect we have to deal with moving forward, we have plenty of people who could play there. For instance, A.J. Moore could be a Stinger. Tony Conner or C.J. Johnson could get some linebacker duty. They are more than capable,” he explained. “What we are going to do is find our best 11 players in spring and if a player or two has to move, so be it. It all clears itself up in spring training, or should.
“The bottom line is that we have options and we will add an option or two in the summer with the signees like Shawn Curtis we have inked. I believe we will be fine there. As the old saying goes, the cream will rise to the top.”
The back end of the 2015 defense is also anticipated to be good by Wommack.
“At free safety, taking Cody’s spot, we will start out with C.J. Hampton. He made a lot of progress last year after a slow start. Knowing he’s got a great shot at being the heir to Cody will motivate him. He will step up,” said Dave. “Like linebacker, though, we have options. We could slide Trae (Elston) from Rover to free safety – he certainly knows out defense inside and out.
“Either of the Moore twins could play either safety position with more training. Mike Hilton could play Rover or FS. Chief Brown will be back in the fold healthy and he can play Rover or Husky. And we have recruited some length at corner and those guys should be able to play all five secondary slots if need be. Some of our corners are long enough and big enough to handle safety if we need them to.”
At corner, Wommack believes spring training will be a dogfight with the return of Kendarius Webster, a freshman who showed a lot of promise last season; Tee Shepard, who missed last year due to a severe toe injury but is anticipated to be ready for spring; Tony Bridges, a highly-touted JUCO signee; Mike Hilton, who has proven he can be effective at any position he is asked to play; and Carlos Davis, returning after tearing up his ACL last August.
“Tee was going to have a lot of playing time last year had he stayed healthy. He has length and outstanding quickness at the line of scrimmage. He also showed excellent ball skills. I’m happy to see him back and expect big things from him. He may have started last year had he stayed healthy,” Dave assessed. “The first time I saw Kendarius I thought he could be special and nothing has changed that opinion. He should be stronger than he was last year due to rehabbing a shoulder injury and that will help him a lot.
“Mike, well, he’s just a football player. Where he will end up, I don’t know, but I know he’ll be on the field somewhere and will be smart and productive wherever that is. Having Carlos back will be an asset as well. He was coming into his own as a corner last year about the time he got hurt and he was definitely going to be our punt returner had he not been injured and had to miss the season.
“Finally, I can’t wait to see Tony in action and see how quickly he catches on to our techniques and what we do in the secondary and at corner, but he’s also one of those kind of players we can slide into a safety position if we need to. He has good quickness, good speed and he’s long. I think he will be an excellent addition to our secondary no matter what position he ends up at.”
The bottom line for Wommack is simple.
While statistically 2014 will be hard to match, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities and everyone – inside and out – anticipates the 2015 defense will be hard to handle.
Like every spring training, the foundation for the 2015 team will be laid in that critical month of practice. It will be the initial “proving ground” for everyone on the squad. Spring will be the primary evaluation tool of the staff as they move forward as a team and the establishment of leadership and chemistry will take place.
There will be a lot of pertinent and intriguing questions asked and answered.
Who will be the quarterback? That probably ranks number one.
Who takes the places of the graduated? There are some big shoes to fill with the loss of the Prewitts, Golsons, Shackelfords, Wallaces, Sanders, etc.
How much can the offense get done with a pieced together OL that does not include two or three stalwarts against one of the best defensive lines in the country? It will be tough.
Which newcomers will make the biggest impact on the team?
Which players will advance their play up to the level necessary to effectively assume their new, broader roles?
Who will emerge as stars in the waiting?
Spring will tell a lot of the tale.