But his keep-it-simple philosophy resonated more than anything else over the previous month-plus as the Rebels participated in spring football practices.
The Rebels ranked No. 100 or lower nationally in every major statistical category except one (No. 66 in pass efficiency defense) a year ago, leading to Ole Miss following up a 10-win season in 2015 with a 5-7 clunker as a result. McGriff was hired by head coach Hugh Freeze in December to replace now-retired Dave Wommack.
McGriff was one of three new hires on the defensive side by Freeze. Freddie Roach replaced Chris Kiffin as defensive line coach, while Bradley Dale Peveto was brought in to coach the linebackers and handle run game coordinator duties.
McGriff, however, sits at the head of the table. And while Ole Miss will continue to run a base 4-2-5 — with some quarters, Cover 2, man free and man and zone blitzes mixed in — he wants his players to play loose and free, not to be bogged down by too much responsibility, scheme and verbiage.
“He wanted the defense to be known for being fast and being physical,” cornerbacks coach Jason Jones, the lone defensive assistant holdover, said. “The way we can make sure they’re fast and being physical is by keeping it simple.”
Each practice in the spring held true to McGriff’s straightforward approach. One practice would emphasize playing fast through pursuit drills aimed at getting to the football as quickly as possible, while the next would turn to physicality through tackling, including one-on-one drills where a Rebel defender would have to defeat the block in front of him and tackle a ball-carrier.
Wommack, by contrast, called for his players to master scheme and assignment, to know the ins and outs of their position, as well as a sizable and detail-oriented playbook. For four seasons the results were nothing short of impressive. Ole Miss even ranked No. 1 nationally in 2014 in points allowed per game (13.8).
But the wheels fell off two years later.
“It was something that every day we emphasized throughout spring practices, just being fast and being physical,” Jones said. “That allowed us to keep it simple. We would have some mistakes, but the encouraging thing is from day one until the last day of practice, we didn’t have as many mistakes. We have some athletes, and that’s one of the things (McGriff) said we’re going to do. We’re not going to come in with too much defense or too much scheme and paralyze them. We want to keep it simple and allow for their athletic ability to take over, and the guys really took to it and they like it. It’s not a lot of thinking. Get lined up and play.”
“Coach McGriff, he didn’t want us like robots out there,” sophomore cornerback Jaylon Jones said. “And he condensed the defensive scheme. It’s less thinking. We’re just playing fast without thinking.”
McGriff’s style was cultivated over the last few years. He spent three seasons as a defensive backs coach with the New Orleans Saints under Sean Payton, followed by one season as the co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach at Auburn with Kevin Steele.
“He just found the things that he enjoyed, and that’s one of the things he’s said,” Jason Jones said. “If you keep it simple and allow them to play fast, they’re going to make less mistakes. At the end of the day, when we watch film and we go back and watch a mistake, that guy on the field, the player, isn’t trying to make that mistake. It may have been just a mental error, and we have to look at it as coaches. Are we asking him to do too much? Did we put too much on his plate that’s causing him to think too much and that’s the reason why the mental error’s happening? Keeping it simple is our philosophy. The guys love it.”
With McGriff’s background in the secondary, the Ole Miss defensive backs will be called upon to lead the way as the defense aims to bounce back in 2017. Disaster plays plagued Ole Miss last season, with the Rebels allowing nearly 13 yards per completion. Ole Miss ranked No. 48 nationally in pass defense.
McGriff’s Auburn secondary, meanwhile, held teams to an SEC-low 11.03 yards per completion.
“Our secondary, we’re faster this year, so we’re running with receivers,” sophomore defensive back Myles Hartsfield said. “We’re playing man a lot. I feel like that’s working to our strengths.”
“We’re going to put the adjustment on the secondary, and as much as we can keep the linebackers in the box, not give them two jobs,” McGriff said. “Make sure they can play downhill and fit the gaps.”
And keep it simple.