Somewhat lost amidst the frustrations of a 3-2 start to the 2009 season for Ole Miss has been the play of a determined defense, which currently ranks sixth in the Southeastern Conference in total yards surrendered.
While viewed as middle of the pack by statistical standards, defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix's bunch has shown capable of dominance early, despite allowing 354 yards in a 22-3 loss to Alabama. Further, the Crimson Tide entered the Ole Miss red zone six times in the contest, but came away with only five field goals.
"It was awesome to see what they did Saturday," Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said. "For Alabama to be that deep (in UM territory) and come away with field goals. This is my first experience depending so much on a defense. We've got to score points. We've got to move the chains. We've got to stay on the field. It's important we improve (offensively)."
Perhaps the most impressive, however, has been the consistent performance of the Rebel secondary, which endured a wealth of criticism in previous seasons. The unit sits fifth in the conference in pass defense (158.6), while limiting Crimson Tide quarterback Greg McElroy to 16-of-34 passing with 140 yards and no touchdowns Saturday.
"What I like about our defense is they still have an attitude that they can improve," Nutt said. "That's when you have a defense that's special. A lot of credit goes to Tyrone (Nix) and that defensive staff for keeping them hungry and their attitude right."
But while the defense is receiving high praise so far, the unit was dealt a critical blow against Alabama, as senior cornerback/punt returner Marshay Green suffered a cracked rib and kidney laceration.
"Losing Marshay is a major blow. He was doing well on punt return and we can put him on anybody as a coverage corner," said Nutt. "He can play man against anybody in this league. Jeremy McGee and Marcus Temple are the next two guys who have to step up."
With the timetable for Green's return unknown, McGee will be inserted into the starting lineup this week across from senior Cassius Vaughn as the team prepares for a homecoming contest with UAB Saturday at 6 p.m.
McGee, a UCLA transfer and converted running back, saw action in all 13 games last season, while ranking third on the team with five pass break-ups. He totaled 20 tackles over his sophomore campaign, with 14 solos and one tackle for loss.
Five games into his junior season, McGee sits 13th on the team in tackles (11), along with one sack and a fumble recovery.
"I've never felt like I was simply a backup," McGee said. "It's always been a group thing with us. Now I feel like I'm just stepping up in place for one of my teammates."
McGee said the loss of such an emotional leader in Green will be difficult to replace.
"Marshay was one of the main voices in the locker room before games," he said. "But we'll keep carrying on because he'll be right there on the sidelines. We'll really miss him, though."
Having to learn on the fly after a position change as a sophomore, McGee struggled with consistency. However, now confident in his assignments, the New Orleans, La. native feels he can play more freely in coverage.
"We're night and day. Last year, everybody was just trying to get comfortable and familiar with the defensive scheme. Me, I had to learn the new scheme and also grow accustomed to playing defense," said McGee. "We can be aggressive in our coverage. That keeps us calm, knowing we have help over the top."
Following the loss, McGee turned to Nix and made known that he can be relied upon moving forward without Green.
The words were certainly welcomed, as the immediate future for a veteran leader of one of the conference's better defenses remains uncertain.
"I kind of had a feeling he wasn't going to be available (this week)," he said. "I was ready even if he had been available. We've been rotating all year. I was just ready no matter what happened. I hate it that Marshay got hurt, but I wanted Coach Nix to know I was there for him. He'd do the same for us."
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