Ole Miss DL Breeland Speaks (Photo credit: Petre Thomas)

Ole Miss DL Breeland Speaks is coming back strong after a disappointing 2016 season

The 2016 season was supposed to be a breakout year for Ole Miss DT Breeland Speaks, the heir apparent to Robert Nkemdiche, but it didn't work out that way. Redemption, however, can e a good thing and Breeland seems to be getting his share of that this spring.

Ole Miss Coach Hugh Freeze stood before a small gathering of media after another tough spring practice Tuesday and proceeded to pronounce that junior Defensive Tackle Breeland Speaks was having an outstanding spring a little over halfway in to the 15-practice marathon.

From a talent standpoint, that should surprise nobody - Speaks has the "it" factor, all-conference ability opposing teams fret about when gameplanning that was supposed to surface last season, but just didn't. Some call it a sophomore jinx. Some, a slump. Whatever it was, it just didn't pan out for Speaks.

But we'll get more into that in a minute.

First, Speaks' reaction to Freeze's praise, which will tell you where this comeback story is going.

"Man, I don't need to hear that (praise) right now," Speaks said, smiling. "I need to keep working. I'm just trying to get a little bit different technique down and get after it. I had a really good practice with my hands today (Tuesday), and I feel like the technique Coach (Freddie) Roach is teaching is coming along."

Back up, big man. Let's reflect for a second, which might be a little painful, but necessary nonetheless.

Ole Miss DL Breeland Speaks (Photo credit: Petre Thomas)

Speaks was supposed to fill the shoes of Robert Nkemdiche last season. He had shown his prowess as a redshirt freshman in 2015 in spot, but at times spectacular, fashion. There was no question in anyone's mind after a very good spring prior to the 2016 season that he would be a stalwart alongside D.J. Jones and that the Rebel defensive front would be a strength of the team.

But on his way to expected stardom, Speaks went the other direction.

"I wasn't focused. I dropped a lot of weight. I'm not going to call it stress, but I feel like I was dealing with a lot, I wasn't focused and my body broke down," he said. "I lost like 30 pounds and I just wasn't myself."

He's now 290 pounds and looks more like the Speaks of the spring of 2016.

"290 is a good weight for me, but I want to get to 300. I will get that back after spring training, I will be 300 when the season starts in September," he noted.

Now, with the help of Roach, Speaks has a new lease on his football life.

"He demands more, a whole lot more. When we go out on the practice field, we are going to work hard until the last whistle blows," Speaks explained. "We had a lot of talks among ourselves after the season about getting back to being the Landshark defense and I can see it coming around.

"I like the new technique we are using. We are mainly striking blockers with our hands and keeping our heads out of it. Before, we were using head and hands. We are also playing square on the guard rather than a tilted three technique. We are still playing half a man, but we are attacking straight ahead going forward. I love the new technique. It keeps everything in front of you and it keeps your head out of it so you can see what's going on better and see what blocks you are getting."

Speaks is not the only one on the defensive front, he says, having a good spring.

Breeland Speaks/Associated Press

"Benito (Jones) is nasty, so is Ross (Donnelly). Josiah (Coatney) has really made strides this spring and Austrian (Robinson) has come around as much as anyone. He is striking guys like I have never seen him, sometimes better than me," Speaks added. "I see a lot of improvement across the board. Garrald McDowell is inside now at the three technique and he's doing well. We'll see where that goes the rest of spring."

Note: Robinson fractured his ankle that day and Speaks was not aware of it at the time of this interview. Austrian is out for the rest of spring training.

Speaks feels everyone returning on the defensive side of the ball has something to prove in coming back from a horrendous 2016 showing.

"It's motivation. It's a slap in the face what we did last year. We went from the Landshark defense to people calling you whatever," said Speaks. "Guys hated that. That's all the motivation we need to get back to being the Landshark defense. That is our goal."

His intention is to help that process along the way by not only setting a better example but by getting in the mix of leadership.

"Marquis Haynes is speaking up more. DeMarquis Gates is taking a leadership role and I have been called on to do the same thing. It's an adjustment for me, but Coach Roach has put that responsibility on me and I'm going to deliver for him and the team," he closed.

Breeland Speaks virtually disappeared in 2016.

He still has a long way to go, but based on spring practice thus far, he's back.

That is not good news for opposing offenses.

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