In fairness, it should be pointed out that Ole Miss' opponents HAD to throw the ball a lot last season. That's because the '08 Rebels yielded a mere 85.5 yards per game on the ground, ranking second among SEC teams in that category.
Ole Miss' rushing defense may not be quite so stout in 2009, since four of the top five tacklers from '08 are gone. The most notable absence will be superstar defensive tackle Peria Jerry, a first-round NFL Draft pick in April. Also gone are strong safety Jamarca Sanford (the second-leading tackler and a seventh-round draft pick), middle linebacker Tony Fein (third-leading tackler) and outside linebacker Ashlee Palmer (fourth-leading tackler).
The top returnee is free safety Kendrick Lewis, who led the 2008 Rebels in tackles (85), interceptions (4) and pass breakups (6). Also back from last year's first-team secondary are cornerbacks Marshay Green (32 tackles) and Cassius Vaughn (43 stops). Vaughn intercepted three passes last fall. Green intercepted two but returned them 92 yards, including a 65-yarder for touchdown vs. Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl.
Returning up front are nose guard Ted Laurent (24 stops, 7 tackles for loss), plus ends Kentrell Lockett (35 stops), Marcus Tillman (25) and Greg Hardy (18). Hardy, a preseason All-American in 2008, saw his junior season wrecked by a foot injury. Though limited to nine games of backup action, he still recorded a team-high 8.5 sacks.
Ole Miss was an erratic defense last fall. The Rebs ranked No. 1 among SEC teams in sacks, No. 4 in third-down defense (foes converted just 32.1 percent of the time) and No. 5 in scoring (19.0 points per game). On the flip side, they ranked 10th in pass efficiency defense (120.5 rating) and 10th in red-zone defense (allowing opponents to score on 27 of 32 trips inside the 20-yard line).
The Rebels' special teams should be very good. Joshua Shene returns after nailing 17 of 21 field-goal attempts last fall. Justin Sparks, who averaged 39.7 yards as the No. 1 punter in 2007, reclaims that duty in '09 after losing the job to Rob Park in '08.
Mike Wallace's 24.6-yard average on kickoff returns will be missed but Marshay Green is back for another year as the punt-return specialist after averaging 10.9 yards per runback last fall.
Bottom line: Ole Miss had better shore up its pass defense because the run defense may not be as dominating in 2009 as it was in '08.