Ole Miss defensive end Marquis Haynes is embracing his role as team leader as the 2016 season approaches

Marquis Haynes was but a few inches away from sending Ole Miss to its first-ever SEC championship game.

He didn’t know it at the time, of course. Still, the play runs through his mind every so often — a flukey, fourth-and-25 lateral conversion by Arkansas that will live on YouTube as a forever reminder of what might have been. 

The CliffsNotes version? Facing seemingly inevitable defeat, Razorback quarterback Brandon Allen threw to tight end Hunter Henry who, despite pressure and defenders draped over him, somehow flung the ball back back to running back Alex Collins. Collins proceeded to run for a first down.

Ole Miss went on to lose, 53-52. 

The “Henry Heave” or “Hog and Ladder” or whatever you want to call it wasn’t the last opportunity for the Rebels to win the game. Haynes was flagged for a facemask penalty on the first of two two-point conversion chances for Arkansas. Failed stop after failed stop. But Haynes remembers. 

Ole Miss won its final three games, including a Sugar Bowl rout of Oklahoma State. But Alabama, the team the Rebels took down in Tuscaloosa in mid-September, didn’t lose another game (the Crimson Tide dominated Florida for yet another SEC title) and went on to win the national championship.

“On that lateral play, I was right there when (Henry) threw the ball,” Haynes said. “I was trying to grab it. (Dan) Skipper, who’s their tallest o-lineman, grabbed my shoulder, reached up and knocked the ball back. I couldn’t even get to it, and then it just bounced.”

The disappointment was a bitter pill to swallow. Heck, it still is. But that disappointment has manifested itself into motivation as Ole Miss readies for the 2016 season. To come so close has only made the Rebels that much more hungry. 

Granted, the Rebels said goodbye to an abundance of talented players, especially on defense. But the goals remain the same. Gone are, among others, Robert Nkemdiche, Mike Hilton, Trae Elston and C.J. Johnson. Haynes has quickly ascended to team leader, and he’s even taken the No. 10 jersey formerly worn by Johnson, his close friend and former mentor.

“I guess knowing my role and trying to be a leader to some of the young kids that come in,” Haynes said of his approach to 2016. “Let them know don’t do this, don’t do that. If you want something, you’ve got to go get it. Deontay (Anderson) from Texas, I  kind of took him under my wing. He’s got a lot of potential and a lot of talent.”

Haynes led the team with 10 sacks last season, and his 16.5 tackles for loss were good for fourth-best in the SEC. He’ll line up opposite Fadol Brown in the starting lineup, with a mix of D.J. Jones, Issac Gross and Breeland Speaks inside. The task is to replace the some 140 combined tackles registered by Nkemdiche, Woodrow Hamilton and Channing Ward. No easy task. 

Fortunately, Ole Miss landed an impressive defensive line haul in recruiting, from a pair of four-star prospects in Benito Jones and Charles Wiley, to three-star Josiah Coatney and former Syracuse DE Qaadir Sheppard. All but Sheppard will be eligible to play next season.

“Most of the time the teams we were playing against would double on him, which would give me a one-on-one chance with an offensive lineman,” Haynes said of the impact of Nkemdiche. “He contributed a lot. Coming in an filling his spot, Breeland did an excellent job last year of stepping up to the plate when his name was called. He contributed a lot towards helping us win games, and we just loaded up on defensive linemen (in recruiting), so we’re going to have a whole lot of rotating going on. 

“It’s going to be real helpful. We need that rotation. We can’t have people out there — like we had with me and Robert last year — for, like, 80 plays and stuff. The coaches have to be able to trust kids to go out there on the field and produce.”

Haynes has taken a unique road to become one of the most dominant pass rushers in the SEC. He originally signed with North Carolina out of high school, but due to academic reasons, he was sent to prep school at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy.

North Carolina was his dream school. But because the administration wouldn’t let him in, the door was opened for other schools. Ole Miss entered the picture when UNC defensive coordinator Dan Dish — in an effort to find a good landing spot for Haynes — made a call to Barney Farrar, now the assistant A.D./high school and junior college relations at Ole Miss. Farrar and Haynes had a good talk, and the next thing he knew, Farrar was calling pretty much every day.

Haynes said he “fell in love” once he stepped foot on campus.

“At first it was hard for me to trust them because I was committed to North Carolina for a year and a half in high school,” he said. “I really had a good bond with them. We had a talk, and (North Carolina) told me to trust (Ole Miss). It took me a while to trust them in the beginning. I didn’t think I was good enough to be in the SEC. But when I started to open up my eyes more, I realized I could be a key part sometime here at Ole Miss. Don’t know when, but I knew my chance was coming. All I had to do is trust them and let them coach me. That’s how it turned out to be.”

It took some time for Haynes to make his impact. He struggled with the mental aspect of the game early in his freshman season. “My head was spinning with the play calls and the actual game.” He leaned on Brown and Johnson for advice and tips on how to produce at the highest level, and midway through the season, everything started to click.

Haynes went on to earn freshman All-America first team honors after finishing with an Ole Miss freshman record 7.5 sacks.

“I’d say it’d have to be my inside move — getting over set and I go right under,” he said of his greatest strength. “My first step is getting (the opposing offensive lineman) to jump out. And soon as he jumps, I just go one, two and club rip inside. The first step is really important for me, especially for my size. You look at Von Miller and other d-ends in the league, their first step is what kills offensive tackles.”

Haynes is hoping to soon join Miller and other accomplished defensive ends in the NFL. He might get his wish after his junior season. He’s already being pegged by some analysts as a first round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

For now, though, he’s focused on the season to come. Ole Miss opens against Florida State Sept. 5, the first step in reaching the ultimate goal of a championship. And this time, the Rebels don’t aim to fall short.

“We’ve gotten to a point now where everybody knows their plays and everybody knows their role,” he said. “Get out on the field and show us what you got.”

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