The Ole Miss defense isn’t without questions enter the 2016 season. The Rebels will kick off against Florida State Monday at 7 p.m. CT in Orlando, Fla., and they’ll do so with a pair of underclassmen holding down starting jobs at safety, and a two-deep at linebacker littered with transfers.
Kiffin, though, heads a veteran-laden defensive line stocked with talent across the board.
“I always like to say 8-10 because I do believe we're two-deep,” he said. “Maybe still trying to figure out who nine and 10. When we get in a game situation, we'll see how they perform when the lights are on, but I do feel like we're two-deep right now.”
Arguably no position on the roster outside of wide receiver is as well-stocked as the defensive line. Senior defensive tackles D.J. Jones and Issac Gross lead the way, followed by rising star Breeland Speaks, a redshirt sophomore who will replace Robert Nkemdiche, who is now an Arizona Cardinal. Former four-star recruit Benito Jones — a 2016 signee — has impressed as well.
Defensive end Marquis Haynes enters his junior season as a projected first-round NFL Draft pick, while redshirt sophomore Victor Evans could be poised for a breakout. The only real question mark is senior defensive end Fadol Brown.
Brown was out or limited for most of fall camp this month as he recovered from surgery. The 6-foot-4, 273-pound Brown broke his foot during the team’s bye week last season. He’s since had two surgeries to repair it, though he returned to practice in full this week. The expectation is he’ll play anywhere from 20 to 30 snaps against the Seminoles.
“Any time you lose a starter for an extended period of time, you've got to move some pieces around and found out really what you have,” Kiffin said. “All of a sudden, a third-stringer is now a second-stringer and a second-stringer is a first-stringer. It was a unique circumstance, to say the least, to go through a fall camp without a guy who has been a starter for you and who you were expecting to be a starter. That was different.”
Senior John Youngblood is currently listed as the starter ahead of Brown, and Kiffin said redshirt sophomore Garrald McDowell — who played in nine games as a reserve last season, totaling 11 tackles and a QB hurry — has “done his job as a backup” as Brown has worked his way back into playing shape. Kiffin believes he can trust McDowell should he need to call on him.
However, should the need arise and the team need to break the glass in case of emergency, another option could be Speaks.
“Breeland, as most of our tackles are, is pretty athletic,” Kiffin said. “He’s a guy that if we need to get big against the run, we could stick out there right now. But right now, that's a last-case scenario. I fully expect Fadol to play and to be able to contribute some.
“G-Mac is showing me that he can be counted on when the time calls. You never know going into these situations. At Alabama last year, it was a hot night and I remember some guys playing 85, 86 snaps, which is way too many. We're going to have to keep them fresh and rotate some guys in there. If we needed to move Breeland, we could.”
Kiffin’s group will be tasked with besting a Florida State offensive line returning all of its regulars from a year ago, of which nine players started at least three games. In all, the Seminoles have 19 scholarship offensive linemen.
The headliner is 6-foot-7, 311-pound left tackle Rod Johnson, followed by senior Kareem Are and guards Wilson Bell and Derrick Kelly, among others.
“Experienced group,” Kiffin said. “Very well coached. Their offensive line coach has been doing it for a long time. They know what they're doing in the run game and protection wise. Obviously blocking for a special back makes it easier, but they're a talented group. I think they return 12 guys off of last year's team. All the starters, and I know they're replacing the right tackle. It'll be his first career start. A guy actually recruited in high school as a (defensive) end and converted to offensive tackle this spring. At the end of the day, it's going to be about execution and our defensive line versus their offensive line in the run game. When they want to sit back and try to air it out with the young quarterback, we'll be looking for the opportunities to show our skill set as well.”
Fortunately for Kiffin, he has strength in numbers, too.
“I've told everybody in this building that I think Victor had not the best camp of anyone but the most consistent and most surprising where you feel good about a guy. He hasn't had a big role in the seasons past. He's played a couple snaps here and there, but he's definitely a guy now who's in the two-deep and you can count on to give Marquis a break at any time because you know he's going to play good football for you.
“I feel like I have three starters inside with Issac, D.J. and Breeland. All three of those are very experienced and very good football players. Benito Jones, as a true freshman, to really continue to flash and show us that he can do it. The game is different the first time ever playing in a big game, and obviously with the tragic loss of his father, you know he's going to have a lot of emotions going on. But as a true freshman, having him here in the spring was huge. We're going to find out what he can do, but I have full confidence that he can play right now at this level.”