2013 Ole Miss Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Ole Miss Rebel Defense
Preview 2013 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: Why did Ole Miss go from 2-10 to 7-6? The defense made a night-and-day improvement with a massive turnaround in the pass rush and with more production against the run going from last in the SEC to allowing almost 100 fewer yards per game. Defensive coordinators Jason Jones and Dave Wommack bring the heat with a smallish line full of speedsters able to fly into the backfield from all spots. End C.J. Johnson leads a loaded line, but the tackles are a bit light. Denzel Nkemdiche and Mike Marry head a brilliant group of linebackers who can pop. The secondary gets back everyone of note, but the pass defense has to be stronger against the deep plays considering the pass rush will do the job up front.
Star of the defense: Sophomore LB Denzel Nkemdiche
Tackles: Denzel Nkemdiche, 82
Sacks: C.J. Johnson, 6.5
Interceptions: Three tied at 3
Player who has to step up and be a star: Junior CB Senquez Golson
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE Channing Ward
Best pro prospect: Freshman DE Robert Nkemdiche
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Denzel Nkemdiche, 2) CB Charles Sawyer, 3) DE C.J. Johnson
Strength of the defense: Pass Rush, Experience
Weakness of the defense: Deep Passes, Tackle Size
The line that was so amazing at getting into the backfield gets back all of the key parts, and a few tremendous new ones. While the pressure came from all sides, it was junior C.J. Johnson who led the way with 6.5 sacks to go along with 55 tackles and eight tackles for loss with a steady year. He improved as the season went on, cranking up five of his sacks during the back half of the SEC schedule showing a nice plenty of speed and power. At 6-3 and 233 pounds the former star recruit isn't huge, but he has a terrific burst with great closing speed. He's just scratching the surface.
Back on the other side of Johnson is senior Cameron Whigham, a 6-3, 255-pound veteran who made 27 tackles with 1.5 sacks, used more to hold up against the run. While he's supposed to be a speed rusher, he hasn't gotten into the backfield on a regular basis considering all the attention paid to the rest of the line. Sophomore Channing Ward could quickly step in and take over more time with his 6-4, 256-pound size and limitless upside. He made 21 tackles as a reserve, but he's a great talent with all the tools.
The interior is set despite the loss of Gilbert Pena and Uriah Grant, mostly because rising star Isaac Gross is expected to do even more. While Gross is just 6-1 and 254 pounds, he's a superior interior pass rusher coming up with 2.5 sacks and ten tackles for loss with 40 stops. 6-2, 294-poud junior Bryon Bennett isn't massive and only made nine tackles with a sack, but he's a veteran body for the interior.
While the returning starters are solid, all of the excitement is over the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, a 6-5, 270-pounder with an NFL body and all the skills to be truly special early on. An elite pass rusher with outstanding quickness for his size, he moves like a much smaller player with peerless closing skills. As good as Nkemdiche is supposed to be on the outside, that's almost as strong as JUCO transfer Lavon Hooks is expected to be in the interior. The 6-4, 290-pounder isn't just a big body, he's a quick interior pass rusher with excellent athleticism and mobility. While he might not necessarily be an anchor against the run, his lateral movement should make him a major stat-sheet filler.
Watch Out For … Ward. Already singled out by the coaching staff as a star in the making, there's a good change he pushes his way into the starting lineup on the outside even with other big name options needing to see playing time. It's all there to put up huge numbers.
Strength: Pass rushers. The Rebels finished second in the SEC and 11th in the nation in sacks and fourth in the country and first in the conference in tackles for loss. And now they have Nkemdiche.
Weakness: Elite SEC teams. The numbers weren't bad against Alabama – allowing just 125 yards and no scores – but stats don't tell the story in what turned out to be a strange game. LSU rumbled without a problem when push came to shove, Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel ran wild, and Texas tore off a huge day. Throw in a 117-yard day from Georgia's Todd Gurley, and the line struggled a bit against the top teams in the West.
Outlook: Be really disappointed if the Ole Miss defensive front doesn't spend most of the season sitting on quarterbacks' heads. The pass rush was the team's biggest improvement – coming up with just 13 sacks in 2012 – and now it's a more experienced line with even more talent coming in. There might not be a ton of bulk size, but it shouldn't matter with the rotation the coaching staff will come up with.
Unit Rating: 8.5
While he brother Robert is getting most of the attention and headlines, Denzel Nkemdiche is already a proven star at the highest of SEC levels. All the 5-11, 203-pound sophomore did was step in and lead the team with 82 tackles with three picks, three sacks, four forced fumbles and 13 tackles for loss in a shocking first year. While he's woefully undersized for an SEC outside linebacker, he makes up for it with speed and huge hitting ability. Always all over the field making things happen, he has uncanny instincts and a nose for always getting around the ball.
With Joel Kight gone, 6-3, 256-pound junior should get the middle linebacker job all to himself after finishing third on the team with 78 tackles with 2.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. On a defensive front seven without a ton of his size is a huge plus. However, even with his size, he has limitless range, playing like a beefed up safety. The entire corps will be helped out by the return of D.T. Shackelford, one of the stars of the Rebel defense a few years ago before suffering a knee injury. Out for two years, the 6-1, 250-pound senior will try to get back his elite skills, range and hitting ability, but more than anything else, his knee problems have to go away.
Watch Out For … junior Senderius Bryant. The 5-9, 223-pound junior might be lost a bit in the shuffle with all the talent in the 4-2-5 alignment, but he found a role last season making 28 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss. He can become a key backup with his versatility.
Strength: Hitting ability. As long as Shackelford is healthy, the Rebels have a big-time trio that can hit like a ton of bricks. Nkemdiche and Marry are guided missiles.
Weakness: Shackelford's knee problems. While the linebacking corps did just fine without him, his presence and leadership takes the Rebel defensive front to another level. Can he hold up? It'll be easy to rely on his size and toughness to change up the alignment a bit, but he still has to show he can be close to form.
Outlook: The defensive front should be fantastic, but there isn't a ton of size. The linebackers are asked to do it all, including getting into the backfield, but their main job will be to blast away against the run. They can do that. Nkemdiche, Marry and Shackelford is as good a trio as any in the SEC.
Unit Rating: 8.5
The secondary was the weak link in the defense, but senior Charles Sawyer did his part coming up with 63 tackles with a pick and eight broken up passes. The 5-11, 181-pound corner is a ball-hawker who's great at coming up with the stop, and now at a slightly bigger weight, he has the body to be even more physical. He's a do-it-all playmaker with 25 straight starts under his belt.
Back on the other side is junior Senquez Golson, a 5-9, 188-pound scrapper who rose up from the pack to make 36 tackles and tie for the team lead with three picks. He'll be tested as teams stay away from Sawyer, but while he was beaten deep a bit too much, he won his share of battles. Senior Louis Covington worked in a rotation with Golson, and while he's a thin 5-9 and 162 pounds, he can move making 13 tackles with two broken up passes.
Junior Cody Prewitt has the right body for an SEC free safety at 6-2 and 214 pounds, and he showed he could hold up against the run finishing second on the team with 80 tackles with two picks and two forced fumbles. While he needs to do more against the pass, he's excellent at making the key stop. Also back at Rover is sophomore Trae Elston after coming in as a top corner recruit. While he was expected to be used in nickel and dime packages, he proved to be too good to get off the field with 61 tackles with a pick.
The Rebels use several defensive backs including a nickel – or a Huskie, in team terms – with sophomore Mike Hilton doing most of the work making 33 tackles with two sacks. While he's a good hitter for his 5-9, 175-pound size, he has to do more against the pass, as does sophomore Quintavius Burdette, a dime package playmaker with 5-11 and 189-pound size. He made 13 tackles but didn't break up any passes. Hilton came be a dime back as well.
Watch Out For … Antonio Conner. In almost any other year he would've been the superstar of superstars in the Ole Miss recruiting class, and even with all the other talents coming in he was still a tremendous get. At 6-2 and 205 pounds he has the right size with next level quickness and athleticism. As experienced as the secondary might be, he could step in and instantly be the team's best defensive back.
Strength: Experience. Considering the Rebels often use nickel and dime packages as much as they do, they have more than enough options to fill the spots. This was a really, really young secondary that's growing up fast.
Weakness: Steady production. Considering the pass rush was among the best in the country, the secondary didn't come up with enough stops. The 15 interceptions were fine, but there were way too many deep balls given up and not enough third down stops. In the regular season, the pass defense allowed 279 yards or more in each of the last five games.
Outlook: The secondary has to be better. There might be problems against the more talented passers and there were far too many lapses, but there's too much speed and experience returning to not come up with more stops. Considering how good the front seven will be, the defensive backs will be tested early and often.
Unit Rating: 6.5
Bryson Rose struggled early and late, but hit 18-of-22 field goals in between. He's gone, and now the interesting experiment needs to pay off. Andrew Ritter redshirted last season so he could get his chance this year, and he spent last season working on his consistency and leg strength. The gig is his now, but getting him to take the year off wasn't a problem considering Rose was already in place.
Punter Tyler Campbell averaged a nation-leading 46.4 yards per kick three years ago and 43.6 per kick in 2011 with a whopping 28 put inside the 20 and 17 fair catches, but the coaching staff chose to redshirt the All-America candidate for this year, hoping for him to improve his NFL stock and also thinking the team and program could be in stronger shape this season. The Rebels got by with Jim Broadway averaging around 41 yards per kick, but Campbell is far better.
The punt return game was awful, averaging an SEC-worst 5.58 yards per try. Receiver Korvic Neat averaged just 5.1 yards per pop, but there's too much speed and athleticism to not get more from somewhere. The kickoff return game was far better thanks to speedy running back Jaylen Walton, who averaged 24.7 yards per try.
Watch Out For … more options tried out on punt returns. Neat should still be the main option, but with 4.4 wheels across the board among the running backs, receivers and defensive backs, there will be more help to try coming up with some big returns.
Strength: Campbell. Welcome back. The punting game was the second-worst in the SEC, but it wasn't that big a problem. Campbell is an All-America weapon who'll shine when he takes over again.
Weakness: Kickoff coverage. The special teams gave up two touchdowns and allowed a whopping 24.5 yards per try. The punt return game needs help, too.
Outlook: There really wasn't that much of an outcry for redshirting the kickers, but the return of Campbell should make a huge difference. The coverage teams need to be better, and there's still a question mark at placekicker, but this should be a positive as the year goes on.
Unit Rating: 6.5
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