The Rebel coaching staff likes fast.
Players who think and play fast. A system that utilizes, and thrives with, fast components.
Consequently, it was no major surprise in early fall camp when the defensive coaches opted to move junior Marcus Tillman from defensive end to defensive tackle, worked Jonathan Cornell at middle linebacker in the spring, move a couple of speedy offensive players to cornerback in spring and give Kendrick Lewis a good shot at winning the free safety slot.
Tillman is a very good defensive end, but at that position he is not known as a speed player in the ilk of Greg Hardy, Kentrell Lockett or Emmanuel Stephens. Speed off the edge was one of the main priorities of the Ole Miss defensive staff. But Tillman is a very fast DT. Maybe a bit undersized, but he makes that up with his ability to move.
Likewise, Cornell is fast enough to play outside linebacker, but a better utilization of his speed is in the middle. He's not quite as fast as Ashlee Plamer, Allen Walker, Lamar Brumfield or Patrick Trahan, from what we gather, so the MLB slot seemed logical to Defensive Coordinator Tyrone Nix and company.
Former WR Marshay Green and former RB Jeremy McGee certainly add speed and quickness to the corner slots, even though they will not be starting Saturday against Memphis.
And Lewis is faster than Johnny Brown. Now that the coaches are more confident in Kendrick's tackling ability, where he suffered a year ago, there was little reason not to start him over the incumbent, Brown, because Lewis is arguably the best cover safety on the squad.
But with that move toward more speed comes the inevitable question. In the tailback strong SEC, is there enough bulk on the defensive side of the ball to stand up to a straight-at-you attack?
We don't know the answer to that until we see it in action, but they have held up well against the Rebel offensive line and run attack in preseason camp. And, besides, the SEC is not nearly as tailback, power football inclined as it has been in the past. More SEC teams are spreading the field and are not as between-the-tackles as before. Nix is well aware of that. Speed on defense is one of the equalizers of those sets now in vogue.
So here's the score, with the 265-pound Hardy being out for a few games. Lockett is 247 pounds. Stephens 242. Chris Bowers, their backup, is about 235. That is light for SEC defensive ends, no question about that. But, as we noted, they have not been pushed around by the Ole Miss OL/RBs.
Inside, with Peria Jerry MIA, Tillman goes 268 and current number one Lawon Scott is in the 300-pound range. Their average is on the smallish side, but they are backed by 300-pound Ted Laurent and 340-pound Jerrell Powe, who can add muscle to the equation with three words – "get in there."
Here's a hunch. If the Rebs do start to get pounded somewhere along the line, look for Tillman to move back to DE and Powe or Laurent to move up to Marcus' slot.
There is also a solution to any power issues at linebacker. Palmer and Cornell are in the 230-pound range. Walker is closer to 220. But, again, if the Rebs need some extra bulk, in comes Tony Fein, who at 240 pounds is one of the more physical players on the team.
The point being, Nix expects to need speed to handle the "new" offenses in the SEC and out of conference, but if they opt for a different strategy, and the speed guys are not holding up physically, he has power options as well on the Rebel roster.
The speed-power question should not be relevant in the secondary. CB Dustin Mouzon is small, but he proved to be a sure tackler and pretty physical for a little guy last year. Cassius Vaughn is the biggest corner so it stands to reason he should be able to stand up to a physical game. SS Jamarca Sanford can play either game – speed or power. And the thought and hope now is that Lewis can too.
On another note, there appears to be sufficient depth throughout most of the defense. Not "great" depth, but sufficient.
Fein and Brumfield, if Walker starts, are ready for action and Trahan is getting there at OLB. On the DL, there are four tackles game-ready and Jerry should be back in another game or two, maybe as early as Wake Forest, and the coaches would not be hesitant to put in frosh Justin Smith in a tight spot. Bowers is able at DE – he's played there before and done fine, and the ace in the hole is Tillman, if need be. Brown adds instant starter status to the safeties and Green is very close to Mouzon's level at CB. SS Fon Ingram has also had a good camp.
It is rare to find a coach who is going to be satisfied completely with the depth situation, but ours has been worse, much worse, in some recent years. I can remember when any injury on the defensive line spelled a form of doom. That just isn't the case this year, at this juncture. And rarely have we had the quality of backup linebackers we have now, in our estimation. Heck, they may end up being as good as the starters when all is said and done.
Obviously, a lot of the context of this defensive look would be different if Hardy and Jerry were healthy and romping. Their absence changes the complexion of the defense significantly because they are like Sanford – power or speed, it matters not to them what the opposition presents, they can handle it.
Here's hoping that's the case with several others – Lockett, Stephens, Scott, Walker/Brumfield, Vaughn - who will be making their debuts as starters this weekend against Memphis.
Nix likes to attack from a lot of different angles, but to do that effectively he has to employ the speed players on the roster.
He hasn't hesitated to slant his lineup toward speed players in fall camp, but with a knowing eye that he has some power to insert if necessary.
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