2012 Ole Miss Preview – Defense
Ole Miss LB Mike Marry
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Ole Miss Rebel Defense
Preview 2012 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack has an interesting group to play around with. The line is still rebuilding from a miserable season, but if everyone is healthy and academically eligible the back seven could be terrific. But how will the alignment look? There’s a glut of veteran linebackers for possibly two spots in a 4-2-5 scheme, but at times the second linebacker – the Stinger – will be built like a corner giving the Rebels a 4-1-6 look. However, if D.J. Shackelford can get back from a knee problem he’ll combine with Mike Marry to make an NFL-sized duo at linebacker. Safety Charles Sawyer leads a promising secondary that could be terrific if the line can come up with any sort of a pass rush. And there’s the problem. The Rebel front four has to hold up against the run and has to find someone who can get to a quarterback.
Star of the defense: Junior LB Mike Marry
Tackles: Mike Marry, 81
Sacks: Mike Marry, Gerald Rivers, 2
Interceptions: Charles Sawyer, 4
Player who has to step up and be a star: Senior NT Gilbert Pena
Unsung star on the rise: Junior CB Dehendret Collins
Best pro prospect: Marry
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Marry, 2) S Charles Sawyer, 3) LB D.J. Shackelford
Strength of the defense: Back Seven Depth, Linebacker
Weakness of the defense: Pass Rush, Run Defense
The defensive line that was such a potential killer just two years ago is now rebooting after a disastrous 2011. It couldn’t stop the run, there wasn’t any pass rush, and the overall effort was sorely lacking. The defensive front has to be far, far stronger against the run and that has to start with 6-2, 326-pound senior Gilbert Pena on the nose. A backup throughout last year, the massive widebody in the middle made 11 tackles with a tackle for loss, but his job will be to do whatever possible to hold at the point of attack. He’s quick as well as big, and stats don’t matter in his world, but he has to show he can handle the pounding.
Trying to come up with some semblance of a pass rush from the outside will be 6-1, 231-pound sophomore C.J. Johnson, a three-game starters are a true freshman making 32 tackles with a sack and five tackles for loss. A great recruit and a top middle linebacker prospect, he was quickly moved to the end to utilize his burst, speed and physical ability. He’ll be a big part of the line for the next three years, but this season he’ll have to rotate with spot-starter Gerald Rivers, a 6-5, 250-pound senior who started four games making 13 tackles with two sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss. Out for most of the offseason, he has to come back healthy to bring the line his blend of energy and motor. Decent against the run, he needs to use his frame and his experience to start getting into the backfield more often.
6-2, 255-pound junior Cameron Whigham got a few chances on the other side starting against Auburn at left end and finishing the year with four tackles with a tackle for loss in his limited role. He’s a speed rusher who has to do more speed rushing, and this year he’ll get his chance working in a rotation with senior Jason Jones. The 6-2, 255-pound senior showed plenty of promise and potential two years ago with 17 tackles and 2.5 sacks, but last year he couldn’t find his niche and made just five tackles with a tackle for loss despite getting a start against Auburn.
Senior Uriah Grant started the first three games of last year on the nose and was moved to the end briefly before getting knocked out with a torn labrum. At 6-0 and 287 pounds he’s built for the nose but he’ll play a one-gap defensive tackle role after making 22 tackles with a sack and two tackles for loss. While he’s quick and versatile, he has to get healthy and has to work in a rotation with Bennett on the inside.
Also in the inside rotation will once again be sophomore Carlton Martin, who started against Alabama and Arkansas making seven tackles. He was thrown to the wolves as a true freshman and did what he could even though he’s slightly undersized at 6-1 and 295 pounds. While he’s strong, he’ll be at his best as an interior pass rusher.
Watch Out For … another year of rotation on the inside. The Rebels tried five different starting combinations at tackle last season with few results. Grant needs to be healthy and Bennett and Pena have to show they’re ready to hold up in the SEC wars.
Strength: Options. For good and for bad, Ole Miss is loaded up with plenty of players for each spot. This is a versatile group that will allow the coaching staff to play around with the lineup on a regular basis and juggle things around when needed.
Weakness: Production. The line didn’t get into the backfield on a regular basis and did next to nothing against anyone who could run the ball. There are still plenty of question marks, and while there are lots of bodies, someone has to turn into a star.
Outlook: The line had to undergo a huge chance last season and threw several young unproven players to the wolves. Can experience translate into production? Defensive line coach Chris Kiffin has to figure out which four players are going to be the steadiest on the lot and stick with them. There’s still a storm to get through before the Rebels get enough production from the front line.
Unit Rating: 6
Can D.T. Shackelford be back for the start of the year? He was a key part of the 2010 Rebel defense making 48 tackles with five sacks and nine tackles for loss, but he suffered a knee injury in spring ball of last year and was out for the entire season and throughout this spring. Expected to be back and ready to roll, the 6-1, 250-pound junior is built for the middle but is a terror on the weakside with the ability and the talent to do a little of everything. If he’s 100% after undergoing another surgery to clean things up, then the Ole Miss defense goes to a whole other level. Yeah, he’s that good.
Junior Mike Marry will get a starting job in some way, likely in the middle, after taking over the job last season and leading the way with 81 tackles with two sacks and five tackles for loss. At 6-2 and 248 pounds he has great size and limitless range – he’s built like a beefed up safety because that’s sort of what he is. If needed he could be used purely as a pass rusher.
With Shackelford out last year, senior Joel Kight was one of the main men on the weakside starting eight games and finishing with 61 tackles with 4.5 tackles for loss. While he’s undersized at 5-9 and 226 pounds he’s tough and he has the wheels to work as a pass rusher. Now the coaching staff has to find a spot for him in the new alignment and he could be lost in the shuffle in the middle and in a rotation with Ralph Williams, a 6-0, 238-pound sophomore who started four times with two games in the middle and two on the outside finishing with 49 tackles with a sack and four tackles for loss.
The new coaching staff has an odd defensive alignment according to the depth chart using what looks like a sixth defensive back in a Stinger position. That should change once Shackelford is back, but on the post-spring depth chart is 6-2, 200-pound senior Aaron Garbutt and 5-10, 197-pound redshirt freshman Denzel Nkemdiche. Garbutt came in from Fullerton CC and ended up starting nine times as a strongside linebacker making 51 tackles with three tackles for loss. He’s not big, but he’s really, really fast, while Nkemdiche is a major pass rushing threat with great quickness off the ball.
Watch Out For … a logjam. The plan is to go with more of a five defensive back alignment, and if Shackelford is back he’ll join Marry to be the two in the 4-2-5. That means productive veterans Kight, Williams, and Garbutt will be looking for places to play.
Strength: Depth. If the defense really doesn’t stick with just two linebackers, all of a sudden there are more than enough options to keep everyone healthy and use as specialists. Shackelford’s return is a must to make a decent group great, and keeping everyone fresh won’t be a problem.
Weakness: Stopping the run. The Rebels made lots and lots of stops, but most of them came way too far down the field. The linebackers didn’t do enough to make a difference against the run.
Outlook: There’s a chance this could be the team’s biggest strength mainly because of the depth, options and size is Shackelford is ready. It would be nice if Garbutt and Nkemdiche could be pass rushing specialists who blow things up, but the real key will be for Marry and the rest of the veterans to do more to stop the better running teams.
Unit Rating: 7.5
The secondary should be terrific if the pass rush can provide a little bit of help. It’ll take some new faces and a little bit of luck to get it done, but one sure thing should be veteran rover Charles Sawyer, a 5-11, 175-pound junior who isn’t built like a big hitter and is a bit thin to be a top safety, but he’s a playmaker finishing second on the team with 70 tackles, four picks, and nine broken up passes including a 96-yard pick six in the opener against BYU. Extremely quick, he cuts on a dime with corner speed and good tackling skills in the open field. He’ll be backed up by Cody Prewitt, a big 6-3, 210-pound sophomore who played a big role last year starting three times late in the year at free safety and finished with 32 tackles with a pick.
Working as both an extra linebacker and a fifth defensive back in the Huskie position will be junior Brishen Mathews, a 5-11, 202-pound big hitter who made 15 tackles in 2010 but got knocked out for the 2011 season early on with an injury. He’s back and should be a strong option against the run while having just enough speed to make things happen for the passing game as a nickel back. He’ll work in a rotation with 5-11, 201-pound senior Ivan Nichols, who came in from ASA College where he made 50 tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss and was supposed to play a big role as a possible starter. Instead he saw time in just five games and didn’t do much of anything.
If Sawyer stays at the rover, then the combination of senior Tanner Burns and redshirt freshman Chief Brown will see time at free safety. The well-traveled Burns started out his career at San Jose State, where he was one of the team’s top defenders making 96 tackles in 2009. He got out and went to Kansas State where he waited a year, did nothing, and then transferred to Ole Miss. While he hasn’t been on the field in two years he has terrific tackling skills and is a fearless hitter. The 6-0, 193-pound Brown is a good hitter with great range. He’s a perfect nickel defender who could come up with good numbers as a specialist.
The cornerback situation could be a huge strength senior Wesley Pendleton and junior Dehendret Collins are as good as they’ve been all offseason. The 5-11, 180-pound Pendleton made just 19 tackles, didn’t come up with a pick and broke up four passes, but the former JUCO transfer from Copiah-Lincoln CC and high school track star has next-level wheels and can stay with anyone in the SEC. Collins also came over from Copiah-Lincoln CC where he was a JUCO All-American making six picks. While he’s a rail-thin 5-11 and 175 pounds he can tackle and, like Pendleton, he can move.
On the way is key recruit Trae Elson, a 6-0, 183-pound corner with the versatility to play anywhere in the secondary and the speed to grow into a shut-down corner. If he’s needed, he could be a playmaker in dime packages and a key part of the rotation at one of the corner jobs.
Watch Out For … Collins. It’s not like Pendleton set the world on fire last year, but he’s a good speedster on one side. His former JUCO running mate, Collins, should be terrific on the other side.
Strength: Bodies. If Brassell is academically fine, all of a sudden the Rebels will have a major positive in the defensive backfield with the corners set, Sawyer a star, and enough options to play around with at all five spots.
Weakness: Interceptions. The Rebels came up with four picks in the second game of the year against Southern Illinois and made nine picks in the first five games, but got just two over the final seven games. Despite not facing a slew of great passing teams, Ole Miss gave up way too many big plays.
Outlook: After a disastrous 2010 the secondary bounced back a bit. Part of the reason was because offenses spent so much time running the ball with ease, and the other part was because the SEC was so miserable at throwing the ball. This year’s secondary could be terrific with a little bit of help from the front six and if everyone plays up to their potential.
Unit Rating: 7
The Ole Miss kicking game could be among the best in the country if senior Bryson Rose can continue to shine after two great seasons. He nailed 16-of-18 field goals in 2010 and connected on 9-of-11 tries last year with both misses coming against Louisiana Tech. One was a 36-yarder and the other was from 53 yards away. While he has good enough leg to get a few shots around 50 yards, his range tops out around 45.
Senior Tyler Campbell averaged a nation-leading 46.4 yards per kick two years ago and 43.6 per kick last season with a whopping 28 put inside the 20 and 17 fair catches. The 6-2, 220-pounder can blast away – coming up with a 73-yarder last year – and should be in the mix for All-America honors.
Running back Jeff Scott was mediocre on kickoff returns, averaging 17.7 yards per try, but he was phenomenal as a punt returner averaging 17.2 yards on his eight tries including a 67-yard touchdown. He’ll be used on punt returns again, while Tobias Singleton will once again do most of the heavy lifting on kickoff returns averaging 24.6 yards per try.
Watch Out For … Philander Moore on punt returns. Scott is an All-America talent on returns, but he might be way too valuable as a running back. Moore was awful coming up with -7 yards on four tries last year, but he’ll get another shot.
Strength: The kicking game. Both Rose and Campbell have been outstanding over the last few seasons and should be among the steadiest and most reliably effective kickers in America. Ole Miss has to be in enough close games for these two to matter.
Weakness: Kickoff return coverage. It’s nitpicking for a great special teams unit, but the kickoff coverage team was mediocre allowing 20.9 yards per try. There weren’t any big plays allowed, but it would be nice to get that a little lower.
Outlook: By far this will be the team’s biggest strength. The kicking game is tremendous, Scott is special, and the kickoff returns will be good. The coverage teams could stand to be stronger, but they aren’t going to be anything to worry too much about.
Unit Rating: 9
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