Overview – Entering the 2008 season, the defensive line was easily considered one of the most talented and deep rotations on the Ole Miss roster.
Offering a strong starting rotation and substantial depth, the unit was looked upon to carry the Rebel defense, with team captain Peria Jerry as their anchor. While the year started strongly for the front, it wasn't until the halfway point in the season that the group truly displayed the dominance fans and media alike had somewhat expected.
A school record 11 sacks were piled up in the team's final regular season game against Mississippi State, as the defensive line led Ole Miss to the most lopsided Egg Bowl in 37 years. Their relentless play only carried over to Dallas, as Jerry and Co. bullied Graham Harrell and Texas Tech throughout, en route to a 47-34 victory.
But with Peria gone, the Rebels now must focus on keeping the momentum rolling.
There are plenty of marquee names returning for 2009, with none bigger than senior Greg Hardy. The freakish athlete flirted with an early departure to the NFL before opting to return for his final season, and looks to cash in on what he hopes to be a monster year.
While hampered for most of the year with a stress fracture in his foot, Hardy still finished last season with 9.5 tackles for loss, with 8.5 of those sacks. He also recorded an interception.
Hardy is joined by fellow seniors Marcus Tillman and Emmanuel Stephens at defensive end, as well as emerging leader Kentrell Lockett.
Tillman has been as steady as they come during his career in Oxford, having played both end and tackle over his four years. He's been a starter since his freshman season, having started all but one game, including 13 last season.
The 6-foot-4, 270 pounder recorded 26 total tackles, six for loss, along with one sack. Perhaps his biggest play of the season, however, came when he recovered a fumble by Florida's Tim Tebow, helping lead Ole Miss to a historic 31-30 upset over the Gators.
Arguably, no player last season made a bigger jump in production than Lockett. The redshirt junior was a starter all season, despite being used sparingly throughout his first two years on campus. He exploded onto the scene, finishing with 36 total tackles, along with 11.5 tackles for loss.
Lockett recorded two sacks and two fumble recoveries on the year, but most fans will remember him as the player who blocked that fateful extra point at Florida. As it turned out, the miss would be the lone failed PAT for the Gators during their quest for a National Championship.
It's hard to argue what Peria meant to the defensive ends, as so many contributors had solid seasons due to the chaos he created.
But fellow starter Lawon Scott also benefited, and will now have to adjust without the luxury of having Jerry's disruptive body alongside.
Scott became a starter midway through the season and performed well. He's not the flashiest of all defensive linemen, but has proven disruptive at various points. Last season, the junior finished with 21 total tackles and 2.0 sacks.
Ted Laurent started seven games during the Cotton Bowl run, adding 27 tackles for the year. He finished with 7.0 TFLs, as well as one fumble recovery. Laurent is a prime choice to replace Jerry, but will have to fend off other talented Rebels who are vying for the spot.
Due to a hand injury, junior Jerrell Powe played a majority of 2008 at a disadvantage. He was still productive in limited time, however, ending the season with 3.5 TFLs and 1.5 sacks. Powe will surely receive a strong look come March 26th, the start of spring training.
Upcoming sophomore Justin Smith is a wild card this spring, as he flashed immense talent at different points in his true freshman campaign.
Smith, Laurent and Powe will all compete for the void left by Peria, which should be an interesting battle.
Returning Starters – DE Marcus Tillman, DE Kentrell Lockett, DT Lawon Scott, DT Ted Laurent
Other Key Returnees – DE Greg Hardy, DE, Emmanuel Stephens, DT Jerrell Powe, DT Justin Smith
Key Signees – DE Craig Drummond, DT Corey Gaines, DT Eric Smiley, DE Alex Williams, DE Cameron Whigham
Key Losses – DT Peria Jerry
Quotable – Defensive Coordinator Tyrone Nix:
On new defensive line coach Terry Price:
"I don't think we will miss a beat. Terry has a feel for what we want to do and he has had an opportunity to study a lot of film. I think he will also be able to add some things to our defense that he has experienced or been exposed to. He and I have talked about some different schemes up front."
On replacing Peria Jerry:
"I think it is a challenge to all of them. I think everyone has to up their level of play. I don't think one person can do it. It's up to all 11 on defense. (MLB) Jonathan Cornell or an (OLB) Allen Walker or (FS) Kendrick Lewis, all those guys have to improve to help replace a player of Peria's caliber."
On vocal leaders emerging:
"Guys like Kentrell Lockett, Lewis, and Marcus Tillman are stepping up into leadership roles. I expect big things out of all of them."
On which players he expects to fill the void left by Peria:
"Lawon (Scott) has proven he can start and perform. Ted (Laurent) started some games for us. You start with them then move to Justin Smith, who was a freshman last year who is no longer a freshman and has shown us excellent potential. Hopefully he will mature and become an impact player inside. Then we are looking for some surprise guys like Jerrell Powe - maybe he will turn the corner. Right now, they are all paying the price in the offseason. They are making a commitment to being the best they can. We hope we'll see some of that work pay off when we start spring ball."
Junior Kentrell Lockett –
On the potential problems the defensive line poses for opposing offenses:
"When everyone's healthy, it's going to be crazy. We'll be a force to be reckoned with. No slip-ups. If I'm on the field, Greg's on the field, Marcus, anybody, there's weapons all around us. Everybody can get the job done."
On what players he thinks can step in for Peria:
"They have some big shoes to fill. They're up for the challenge from what I've seen. Ted Laurent and Lawon Scott are some of the guys that can fill those spots and get the job done. They might not do it as well as Peria or they might do it better than Peria, but they're going to do it. They've accepted the challenge from Coach Nix."
On being a vocal leader for the defense:
"It kind of came natural but, at the same time, it was a challenge by Coach Nix. Now that Peria is gone, he wanted to know who the leader was going to be. It was either Me, Greg or Marcus. Well, Greg's out, Marcus isn't that much of a talker, so that left me. I guess I fit that role. I just took it and am running with it. Hopefully I can lead by example by being in front of all the drills and doing everything the coaches want me to do. I'm just going to try and be me and be that leader."
Final Analysis – The most experienced unit on the defensive side, the D line does have a giant spot to fill in the rotation without Peria, but has some solid force in the starting lineup.
Hardy is an incredible athlete who is adaptive to whatever position he is most needed. When healthy, the senior is far-and-away the most significant game-changer of the group. Talent has never been a question with Greg, but he must remain motivated in all 12 games to truly become the impact lineman we all know he's capable of being. Health will also be a lingering question, but Hardy should be ready to go in the fall – he will not participate in spring drills.
Professional in his approach, Tillman is the perfect model of one who leads by example. He's as quiet as they come, but once he puts the pads on, will give you maximum effort and reliable contributions. Don't expect that to change in his final collegiate season.
Easily the most vocal, Lockett was a pleasant surprise last season, but (if his maturation continues) will surely be a household name in 2009. He's displayed spurts of explosion as a rush end, but has also been capable against the run despite a more slender frame.
Despite the departure of Peria, defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix and line coach Terry Price have numerous playmakers at their disposal as spring practice approaches. While a major emphasis will placed on preventing a drop in production following Jerry's departure, the staff is blessed with an array of depth and talent.
It'll be interesting to see which players emerge over the weeks of March and April, as many eyes will be fixated on Laurent, Powe and Smith. Scott and the ends seem entrenched in their roles for now, so the battle for playing time amongst the three could be the biggest story line.
Spring Preview: Defensive Line
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