When All-American Defensive Tackle Robert Nkemdiche left the Ole Miss-Memphis game in the first half with a concussion, there was, rightly, major concern about the Rebel defense, and while it struggled, it was not because of Nkemdiche's absence.
Robert's replacement, redshirt freshman Breeland Speaks, played 69 plays against the Tigers and showed up admirably, recording six tackles with a pair of them being behind the line of scrimmage.
Not only that, but in what seemed like a "flat" defensive performance, Speaks was one of the rare bright spots, quite noticeable in how active he was.
"He played well and he played really hard," said Coach Hugh Freeze in his Monday press conference. "Breeland probably played too many snaps, but we didn't have much choice. I thought he held up well. I was very proud of his performance and particularly his effort."
Even the most critical Rebel fans in the stunning loss acknowledged Speaks' play.
"I felt like I did OK. When Rob went down, our team needed me to step up and I felt I did that," Speaks said. "I was pretty tired. That was my first time playing that many snaps, but I felt effective and solid throughout the game."
But while Breeland took some solace in his play, he felt the bitter hand of defeat.
"It just didn't seem to be our day. We had so many missed tackles and so many missed assignments," he stated. "You really can't do that and expect to win. If one player is wrong, the whole team is wrong. That's pretty much what happened. It is a want-to type thing to me and I thought we lost our focus somewhere and never got it back in that game. We started out real well, but then once we gave up a couple of scores, it was like we didn't have focus. We have to tighten things up more, starting now."
Speaks said the Rebel defenders have not lost their confidence, but more of everything is necessary.
"We have to take care of the small things and we have to tackle better overall," he explained. "It is not that complicated - we just have to go out there and get it done. The Memphis game is over - now it's all about Texas A&M. They have a really good offense with outstanding skill players. It will be a tough game and we have to be sharp to win the game on both sides of the ball."
Speaks was not totally surprised by his productivity against the Tigers. He was prepared for it.
"Last year when I took the redshirt, it made me hungry. I had never sat out before. Getting into the weight room an extra day last year on Friday - we call it Freaky Friday - where we lift 90% of our max seven times of every list, that will get you right," he noted. "I wanted to get back in the spotlight like I was in high school.
"I went from 328 pounds to 303 pounds and I lost six percent body fat, the most on the team. I plan on chipping off a lot more this offseason. I want more of what I got last Saturday against Memphis. I hated losing. I hated Rob got hurt, but I was excited to be out there trying to help my team."
Nkemidche is going through concussion protocol. He may or may not be ready for the Texas A&M game. If he cannot go, that will be a blow to the defense, obviously, but Breeland Speaks wants to make sure it's not much of one.
He did last Saturday in one of the few Rebel defensive bright spots.