Ole Miss Preview: Defense

Whenever teams talk about defenses, the first thing they throw out is a defense's formation.

Is Ole Miss playing a 4-2-5 a big deal? Not really. Most teams have started playing some version of this. You could even consider Texas (Demarco Cobbs) a purveyor of the defense, while Longhorn opponents like Oklahoma have listed themselves as 4-3 teams while employing safeties like Tony Jefferson and Joseph Ibiloye as the third linebacker.

But where Ole Miss really stands out is the speed it employs defensively, and more specifically, the trade-off the Rebels have made by swapping size for said speed.

Take the defensive line. At an average weight of 260 pounds, the Rebels likely have the smallest starting group in the SEC, if not among all BCS schools*.

* For comparison's sake, Alabama's starting defensive line averages 296 pounds, though it's a three-man front, while Texas's more traditional four-man group averages 276.3. The Longhorns only have one starting defensive lineman — end Jackson Jeffcoat — smaller than the average starting Rebel.

But interestingly enough, that hasn't cost the Rebels against the run, at least not yet. Ole Miss has allowed just 137 rushing yards through two games, at an average of 2.1 yards per carry. At the same time, the Rebels have been able to get after the quarterback, with nine sacks already.

The Rebels do get bigger at nose tackle with backups like Gilbert Pena (6-4 317) and Woodrow Hamilton (6-3 292). But the starter is Issac Gross, listed at 6-1 254. Gross is a true freshman, and has started both games since enrolling at Ole Miss as an Under Armour All-America selection, and Mississippi Class 6A Defensive Player of the Year. His tackle mate is senior Uriah Grant (6-1 298), who earned a start against UTEP, then made the coaches look good for his selection with a four tackle, one tackle-for-loss performance.

C.J. Johnson (6-3 233) and Cameron Whigham (6-3 255) are the starting ends, with Jason Jones (6-3 255) splitting time with Whigham. Whigham earned his first career start last week, making three tackles with a half-sack. Just a sophomore, Johnson is one of the best players in the front-six, a cat-quick player who was SEC Co-Defensive Lineman of the Week in Week One. Despite his smaller size, Johnson made 32 tackles with four tackles for loss and a sack last year, and appears well on his way to dwarfing those numbers. He has 10 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack in two games.

Of course, the Rebels do get some size back with MIKE linebacker Mike Marry (6-3 256), who actually outweighs three of the four starting Rebel defensive linemen. He's a good one, too, making 81 tackles and five tackles for loss as a sophomore. Against UTEP, Marry made eight stops, including a half-sack. Stinger linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche (5-11 203) has had a nice redshirt freshman season so far, tying Marry for second on the team with 11 stops. Nkemdiche also leads the team in tackles for loss with three.

Once opposing quarterbacks have been able to get rid of the ball, the Ole Miss defense hasn't been as successful. Ole Miss has allowed opponents to complete 72.2 percent of their passes for 260.5 yards per game.

Dehendret Collins (5-10 185) spent last year earning second-team NJCAA All-America honors. Then he spent the spring winning a starting cornerback job. But this fall, he was moved to the 'Huskie' spot, that of the extra defensive back. Now he's leading the Rebels in tackles, with 13.

Wesley Pendleton (5-11 175) is the starter at boundary corner, and he was the team's best defensive player in the spring. He started 10 games a year ago. Senquez Golson (5-9 188) plays the boundary spot and also has plenty of experience, starting four games as a true freshman last year. He's an excellent outfielder on the baseball team, and has seven tackles so far this season. Cody Prewitt (6-2 214) can be a playmaker at free safety. He has a key interception and a sack on the season. And Charles Sawyer (5-11 181) is the top Rover, or strong safety. Sawyer was a preseason All-SEC Pick who had four interceptions last year. True freshman Trae Elston (6-0 190) was a big-time recruit out of high school and was a part of the rotation, but he was suspended by the SEC for a hit last week, and will miss the Texas contest.

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