The Rebel defense struggled mightily in 2016. They ranked No. 100 or lower nationally in every major statistical category except one (No. 66 in pass efficiency defense). Ole Miss was 5-7 overall as a result.
The defensive line was widely regarded as a strong group, even when things were at their worst. But it’s hard to shake the ugliness of the numbers, and gone are a pair of starters in defensive tackle D.J. Jones and defensive end John Youngblood. Ole Miss did receive positive news in the return of Marquis Haynes, who opted to hold off on NFL Draft entree and play out his senior season.
“He’s doing well,” Roach said of Haynes. “Not just to single him out, but all those defensive ends, it’s been a transition for them. We’re teaching them different things. These kids have been remarkable. They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do to continue to improve. I’m proud of that. We’ve got to keep chopping wood. It’s been good. They’ve taken on this challenge and done well. We’ve got to keep working and know there’s a big picture in mind that we’re all trying to accomplish.”
Roach has plenty of options as Ole Miss attempts to rebuild its defense from the inside out.
It starts with Haynes, an All-SEC third team selection as a junior who currently ranks third in school history with 24.5 career sacks. He’s fourth with 36.5 tackles for loss. Haynes led Ole Miss in tackles for loss, sacks, forced fumbles and sacks a year ago.
Roach said Haynes’ abilities as a pass rusher are well-established. However, he believes Haynes can improve on run defense.
“Obviously he can rush the passer,” Roach said. “That’s a known fact across the league. But most importantly is stopping the run. We’ve got to be better at stopping the run. With him, of course a great athlete, a great kid and a great competitor. I think it’s a little different. It’s kind of like Shaquille O’Neal. He’s a really good dunker, but where he struggles at is shooting free throws. So we’ve got to shoot more free throws, and that means stopping the run and work on stopping the run. The other stuff will come natural. That’s natural, God-given ability. Obviously we can tune some stuff up, but we’ve got to be able to stop the run. If we don’t stop the run, they’re never going to throw the ball.”
Redshirt junior Victor Evans and redshirt sophomore and Syracuse transfer Qaadir Sheappard are competing to start opposite Haynes. Roach has liked what he’s seen from the battle.
“There’s no drop-off between the two,” he said. “They’re both great players and great competitors and really good kids. For me to say that one’s ahead of the other, I don’t think that’s fair to say. We still have practices left. Maybe one pulls ahead of the other, but right now, they’re both working hard, they’re both learning the system and they’re both doing what we need them to do to play winning football.”
Breeland Speaks was thought to be a breakout candidate as a redshirt sophomore. However, consistency was an issue. He appeared in 12 games, registering 28 total tackles. He had 32 total tackles in but one additional game played in 2015.
The 6-foot-3, 290-pound Speaks sits atop the depth chart at defensive tackle with spring football practices in their final week. Ole Miss will host the Grove Bowl Saturday at 11 a.m. in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
“He needed a new start,” Roach said. “Not saying anything negative about who’s been here before, but sometimes we need a fresh beginning. I had expectations as a freshman. You come in as a sophomore and it doesn’t go according to what others may think. I’ve been in that position as a player. For the most part, to him, he probably let himself down more than anything. I told him, look, you need to have a higher standard for yourself than anybody else can, and you know if you’re wrong or right. I think he’s got a fresh start. We all need it. I was in the same position. I get it. I understand where he’s coming from. He’s had a smile on his face every day he’s walked into my office or in that meeting room. I’m proud of him. We’re going to keep working. He’ll be great on Saturday; there’s no doubt in my mind.”
Speaks is flanked by sophomore Benito Jones. Jones saw action in every game of his true freshman season. He totaled 39 tackles, including 4.5 tackles for loss.
“I thought I was country. That may be one of the countriest kids I’ve ever met in my life,” Roach said. “Good kid, great energy, always has a smile on his face, doesn’t mind working. That room I’ve got, we’ve got some good kids. We’ve got some good kids that are hungry and want to win. They want to reestablish what ‘Landshark’ defense is about. That’s a good thing. They’re willing to work and they want to be great. It’s our job to guide them and push them every day. We’re in this thing together.”
In the end, Roach is simply looking for solid effort and enthusiastic approach, because his group has talent. Five of his defensive linemen were four-star-or-better prospects coming out of high school.
It’s on Roach to maximize the abilities of the guys in his room.
“Charles (Wiley) has done good,” he said. “He’s progressed and continued to work hard. Usually when they’re coming out of high school and maybe they don’t get the reps they would have had they played as freshman, there’s a lot of bad habits. For the most part it’s just breaking bad habits like looking in the wrong place or trying to make plays that’s not your play to be made. I think that’s the most overrated thing in football, is go make a play. Not necessarily. Don’t make the play that’s not your play to make. Do your job, and then get to the ball. It’s just breaking those habits from high school. Charles has professed and done a good job. Ryder (Anderson) continues to work. He’s gained some weight. Doing real well. You can see him growing.
“The progression we’ve made from day one to now has been really, really good. It’s only going to get better. We’ve got to continue to demand perfection and keep the standard high. It’s all about playing to a standard. If it’s not to the standard of what we think is winning football, then it’s not acceptable and we’ll do it until it gets right.”