There were several good things that came out of Saturday's scrimmage, but probably the most glaring was the physical nature of the Rebel defense.
It's way to early to start throwing accolades their way. After all, it will be very hard to top what the defense, overall, did last season, but from one extended look it's not a stretch to relay that this group of Ole Miss defenders have the potential to be the most physical defense Defensive Coordinator Dave Wommack has had here and one of the more physical defenses in Rebel memory.
A lot of good things came out of Saturday's scrimmage, and while it wasn't always pretty, one thing was crystal clear - the Rebel defense likes to hit.
"We have a physical nature that I like," said Coach Hugh Freeze afterwards. "It's been like that every day - those guys will strike you, no doubt."
Wommack didn't jump to any premature conclusions when asked about the Rebs' toughness, but he is pleased with where things are on the defensive side of the ball at the moment.
"I am really excited about this group. The defensive line is deep, the linebackers are developing and we have more length at corner," he surmised. "I just want to see us get better and better each time we go out there."
Two of the more physical additions to the squad are cornerbacks Tee Shepard and Tony Bridges. When corners on an island come up and make big hits, which they have done consistently, it is infectious - everyone wants to get in on the action. Feeding frenzy, so to speak.
"They like to hit and their length will help neutralize the taller receivers you see these days throughout our league," Dave noted. "I'm really proud of their progress because neither one of them have much experience in our system. (CB Coach) Jason (Jones) has done a great job with them.
"They are making some mistakes and sometimes they are a little too aggressive, but it's easier to reel them in than to prod them to be aggressive. That's what spring is all about - making mistakes and correcting them now. They are so eager and they want to get better. Tony is a gym rat - he asks a million questions and wants to get better and I like that. He's learning quickly. He has an unlimited upside. He will knock your head off and has unusual quickness for his size, the same as Tee. I am also happy with the way Kendarius (Webster) and Kailo Moore are playing."
Wommack used the term "developing" to describe the linebackers. Wommack, who now coaches linebackers, expanded on the middle LB slot a bit.
"I think we will have a middle linebacker by committee. I like having C.J. (Johnson) there for some things, but we will have a third-down LB and other situational personnel," Wommack explained. "I like C.J. at MLB, but I'm not taking him off the field from defensive end in those other situations. He's doing a good job - he's a great leader and the guys rally around him.
"I am also pleased with the progress Christian (Russell) and Temario (Strong) are making."
At stinger LB, Denzel Nkemdiche is healthy and having a good camp, but DeMarquis Gates is pushing him hard and JUCO transfer Terry Caldwell is starting to catch on to things of late.
"Denzel knows the position so well and is having a good spring. Gates has a lot of talent. I like where he is too. Terry started slow, which is normal, but the last few days he is starting to pick things up and show some explosiveness," Wommack cited. "At Husky, our hybrid position, Tony (Conner) is Tony - a great player who just keeps getting better and A.J. Moore is doing a nice job too."
One move prior to spring was to shift former Rover Trae Elston to free safety, a spot Cody Prewitt held down for most of four years.
The free safety calls the secondary signals, something Prewitt excelled at. How is Trae doing with that added responsibility?
"He has been much more verbal this spring because he has had to. Trae is really smart and so is Mike Hilton, who was moved to rover, so communication should not be an issue," he stated. "With Mike out the rest of spring with an injury, Chief Brown and C.J. Moore are coming along.
"Behind Trae is C.J. Hampton who has improved as much as anyone on our defense this spring.He's is playing very, very physical and smart. That's good to see."
Up front, there's not much more to say about the proven stalwarts - Robert Nkemdiche, Issac Gross, Marquis Haynes, Fadol Brown, etc - at this juncture, but a lot of eyes are on JUCO transfer DT D.J. Jones, redshirt freshman DT Breeland Speaks and redshirt freshman DE Victor Evans.
"D.J. can play tackle and nose. He will get a lot of reps. He's very explosive and strong. He's going to be a great player for us," Dave stated. "Breeland is another guy inside who will get a lot of reps. He's very athletic and reminds me a lot of Robert. His motor never stops and he's progressing nicely.
"Victor has been a little tentative at times, but he will grow up. He's got the tools."
So far, so good on the defensive side of the ball in spring practice.
As Wommack said, mistakes are being made, but they are full-speed, aggressive mistakes and now is the time to correct them.
Meanwhile, being physical is their calling card.
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