The 6-foot-3, 310-pound Speaks made waves as a reserve in 2015, playing in every game with two starts. He totaled 32 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and a sack, as well as broke up two passes and recovered a fumble.
With Robert Nkemdiche long gone to the NFL (Nkemdiche was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the first round of the NFL Draft in April), Speaks has moved into the starting lineup and will soon be let loose.
And he couldn’t be more ready.
“Of course every freshman wants to come in and play and be that guy like he was in high school, but that didn’t happen in my case,” Speaks, a former four-star prospect, said. “Playing as a redshirt freshman, it was fun. Not too many freshmen get to do that. I was thinking to myself Johnny Manziel was a Heisman winner his redshirt freshman year. I mean, if he can do things like that … Of course not any of Johnny’s other issues, I’m just talking about on the field.
“I feel like I can do it. I feel like it’s in me to do it.”
He’s not alone in that belief, and the talent surrounding him should only help his already-skyrocketing stock.
The two-deep defensive line depth chart is flush with all-league caliber players, headlined by junior defensive end Marquis Haynes and senior defensive tackles D.J. Jones and Issac Gross. Waiting in the wings are a wealth of promising underclassmen, including Victor Evans, Garrald McDowell and Benito Jones, among others.
“We’re catching minutes of breaks because (Ole Miss DL coach Chris Kiffin) is coaching up young guys with three more people to go with each line,” Speaks said. “It’s been fun, and of course the vets. There are a lot of us, so we’re teaching the young guys as we go. The room has never been this deep before. That’s kind of weird coming into a full room. I’ve never seen it before. I feel like we’re going to be pretty good early on because we have that veteran group coming back.”
Speaks has been most impressed with Haynes. The Rebels closed out fall camp this week, and Haynes — one of the top pass-rushers in the country — has consistently shined.
“He’s not fair. He’s just a freak,” Speaks said. “He just runs past people. Now that he’s actually learned how to run past people and hit them with even a small move, it’s incredible. He’s so fast, he doesn’t really need a move. But the fact that he’s opening up and trying different things, it’s crazy. He’s been working on his technique just as much as all of us have. He’s going to be really great for us this year. Not just good, he’s going to be great for us.”
And that includes Speaks. Time to shine.
“I feel like September will be able to let me know everything I need to know for the rest of the season,” he said. “I feel like I will have a breakout year.”