2008 Ole Miss Preview - Defense
Ole Miss DE Marcus Tillman
Ole Miss DE Marcus Tillman
Posted May 2, 2008

CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Ole Miss Rebel Defense

Ole Miss Rebels

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN Ole Miss Preview | 2008 Ole Miss Offense
- 2008 Ole Miss Defense | 2008 Ole Miss Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Ole Miss Preview | 2006 CFN Ole Miss Preview 

What you need to know: There will be plenty of attacking and lots of pressure in the backfield, but the D will also give up its share of big plays. Eight starters return to a defense that wasn’t all that bad, but it didn’t get any support from the offense. Greg Hardy will earn several All-America honors at one end, while Marcus Tillman and top JUCO transfer Emmanuel Stephens should help provide a killer pass rusher from the other side. The linebacking corps gets JUCO transfer Patrick Trahan, a guided missile who originally went to Auburn before having academic issues, to pair with do-it-all playmaker Ashlee Palmer. The hope is for receiver Marshay Greene and running back Jeremy McGee, a transfer from UCLA, to provide help on the corner, while Jamarca Sanford and Johnny Brown form a solid safety tandem.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Ashlee Palmer, 89
Sacks: Greg Hardy, 10
Interceptions: Ashlee Palmer, 3

Star of the defense: Junior DE Greg Hardy
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior CB Marshay Green
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Allen Walker
Best pro prospect: Hardy
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Hardy, 2) LB Ashlee Palmer, 3)
SS Jamarca Sanford
Strength of the defense: Speed and athleticism, pass rush
Weakness of the defense:
Production, cornerbacks

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: With a new coaching staff could come a clean slate for junior pass rushing sensation Greg Hardy, a 6-4, 265-pound dream of a pro prospect with a tremendous speed burst off the ball and a great ability to close once he gets a bead on a quarterback. In the doghouse here and there under the old regime, Hardy only ended up playing in ten games but still managed to finish fourth on the team with 64 tackles to go along with ten sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss. Formerly part of the Rebel basketball team, he's a tremendous athlete who has just scratched the surface on how good he can become. The next step after his breakout year is to be more consistent. He dominated Alabama with three sacks, and came up with two against LSU, but disappeared for stretches and did nothing in the season finale against Mississippi State. If he can keep his head screwed on straight and if he realizes that there are millions of dollars waiting for him if he has another good year and shows off an elite work ethic, he'll be dominant.

Even though Hardy had a big year and drew all the attention, junior Marcus Tillman failed to take full advantage on the other side. Expected to blow up as a top-shelf pass rusher, he failed to register a sack and game up with just 4.5 tackles for loss along with 41 tackles. At 6-4 and 260 pounds, he has tremendous size and phenomenal upside, but the one-time super recruit has to put it all together.

The steady star on the inside is senior Peria Jerry, an All-SEC tackle who anchored the front line making 58 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss. Finally able to stay healthy after struggling with injuries as a sophomore, he showed how good he could be. Now he'll have even more responsibility as he'll line up where needed and depending on the situation. He's a tackle, but he's quick enough to move to the outside from time to time.

At the moment, sophomore Ted Laurent will start on the nose after seeing a little bit of action in seven games. At 6-0 and 303 pounds, he's a bowling ball of a defender with a good base and great leverage. He had a good spring showing excellent quickness into the backfield, and with the rest of the strong line around him, he won't have that much pressure to carry the run defense; he just has to hold down the fort on the inside and let everyone else work.

Projected Top Reserves: Like Hardy, sophomore Kentrell Lockett is a former Rebel basketball player with tremendous athleticism and great pass rushing potential. A top-shelf recruit, he was supposed to be the team's breakout pass rushing star, but he only made seven tackles and a sack in six games of action. Basically, Hardy had the season Lockett was supposed to come up with. At 6-5 and 240 pounds, Lockett is a big speed rusher who's expected to come up with a big year in the rotation with Hardy.

Battling with Tillman on the other end will be 6-3, 220-pound junior Emmanuel Stephens, a star JUCO transfer who cranked out 21 sacks in his two seasons at Blinn CC in Texas. While he's not all that big, he has excellent speed and burst. He could be a specialist early on and will get ever shot at beating out Tillman for the job.

Finally, finally, Jerrell Powe will be part of the mix. The one-time superstar recruit, and the gem of the Ole Miss 2005 class, Powe hasn't been able to get academically eligible, but now he's able to join the team and he should be able to ready to shine. The 330-pounder is the type of player NFL teams build a defense around, and now he'll clog up the Ole Miss defensive interior.

Watch Out For ... more pressure in the backfield. Hardy is a given, but he'll get everyone's attention. If Tillman doesn't come through this year, there are other options, like Stephens and Lockett, who'll get to the quarterback.
Potential. Hardy has first round draft pick potential, and Jerry is growing into a top NFL prospect. Tillman, Stephens, Laurent and Lockett are all interesting, and now the line will go to another level with Powe eligible. The pieces are there, but there hasn't been much in the way of ...
Proven production. The line never came together over the last two seasons. Despite the great recruiting classes and the players who look like Tarzan, there's been a lot of playing like Jane. It's time for this group to start stopping someone's running game.
Outlook: The play in the backfield improved and there was far more pressure on the quarterback than there was two years ago, but the run defense has been non-existent over the last few seasons even with all the talent. There's no excuse for this front four to be anything but dominant, but that was the hope for last year, too.
Rating: 7


Projected Starters: Former JUCO transfer Ashlee Palmer was a top safety prospect who moved to linebacker and flourished on the outside with a team leading 89 tackles with seven tackles for loss, three interceptions and seven tackles for loss. The 6-2, 222-pounder is a natural weakside defender with great athleticism and unlimited range. The former high school quarterback doesn't miss any tackles and can hang with anyone out of the backfield on pass patterns. He's a special player who'll be the centerpiece of the linebacking corps.

Looking to take over in the middle is sophomore Jonathan Cornell, who was expected to replace Patrick Willis last year, but he ended up starting on the weakside where he made nine tackles before being lost for the year with a shoulder injury. He was able to get his sophomore eligibility back, and now he's expected to be a key three-year starter in the middle if he can hold up. And that's the problem. The talent is undeniable, but was 6-1 and 225 pounds, he has to prove he can take the pounding.

Ready to emerge as a star on the strong side is sophomore Allen Walker. One of the bright spots this spring, the 6-1, 215-pounder who made 13 tackles as a reserve showed he could be more than a beefed up safety. An elite defensive back prospect when he came to Ole Miss, he's a great open field tackler who should be all over the field from the strongside position.

Projected Top Reserves: Tony Fein finished second on the team with 94 tackles with three tackles for loss seeing time in the middle, and he'll be a key factor in the rotation again. The 6-2, 245-pounder is a great tackler and is plenty tough having spent close to four years serving in Iraq before making 136 tackles and 12 tackles for loss at Scottsdale CC. While he's great against the run, and he has the size the smallish linebacking corps desperately needs, he doesn't have much in the way of range.

The depth chart will make a huge change this fall when Patrick Trahan gets off the bus. The 6-3, 225-pounder is considered one of the nation's top JUCO prospects having made 120 tackles and nine sacks for NW Mississippi CC last year, and now he's bringing his elite athleticism and great tackling ability to Oxford after starting out his career at Auburn.

Watch Out For ... the linebackers to be better than the coaching staff thinks. Nutt has pointed out that the corps might be a problem, and it's not going to be elite, but it's serviceable with players like Palmer and Cornell good enough to win with. Things could change in a big way if Trahan is as good as advertised.
Quickness. Everyone can move extremely well. The idea under the old regime was to beef up safeties and bring speed, speed and more speed to the corps, and while that has meant the Rebels can run, they've had problems holding up against the better running teams.
Talent. It's not a bad corps, but there isn't the frontline talent compared to other SEC teams. There's plenty of depth and there are several options to play around with, but there are several star high school defensive backs playing safety; there aren't plenty of star high school linebackers.
Outlook: Can all the speed and quickness make up for a lack of size and skill? It didn't work last year as the linebacking corps was bowled over way too often, and while the tackle numbers were there, many of the stops came down the field. There's plenty of experience to work with and a lot of good runners who'll be all over the field, but now there have to be more impact plays from someone other than Palmer.
Rating: 6.5

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: One of the first big changes Nutt and the coaching staff came up with was a shifting at cornerback. The corners didn't make nearly enough plays last year, and now if could be up to former receiver Marshay Green, the team's third leading receiver with 31 catches for 260 yards, to be the No. 1 cover man on the left side. The 5-9, 170-pound junior has the the speed and quickness, he's also a tremendous kick returner, and he looked like a natural defensive back this spring from the start.

On the right side will likely be senior Dustin Mouzon, when all is said and done. He's in a battle for the job he held throughout last year, and while he's a good tackler, making 59 stops with a sack and four tackles for loss to go along with two interceptions and five broken up passes, he didn't do enough when the ball was in the air. One of the team's faster players, he showed off his wheels with a 99-yard pick six against Memphis.

One of the sure things in the secondary is 5-10, 200-pound senior Jamarca Sanford after finishing third on the team with 83 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. While he's not all that big, he's plenty tough having filled in at linebacker earlier in his career. While he needs to be better against the pass, the strong safety is one of the team's biggest hitters and a tough special teamer.

5-11, 207-pound sophomore Johnny Brown took over the starting free safety spot late last year and finished with 60 tackles and an interception. He showed this off-season that he deserves to keep the job despite getting plenty of competition. With excellent speed and great range, he has tremendous upside and should only get better; at least that's the hope. He's been good, now he has to be consistent.

Projected Top Reserves: Neck-and-neck with Mouzon for the starting corner job on the right side is 5-10, 185-pound junior Cassius Vaughn. There's a chance Vaughn could move over to the other side if Mouzon steps up his play this fall, but the two will most likely work in a rotation. Vaughn was terrific last year in a spot starter role making 48 tackles, but he didn't do anything against the pass. Originally a top running back when he came to Oxford, he's now a true DB.

Playing behind Brown at free safety is 5-11, 192-pound junior Kendrick Lewis, last year's starter before Brown took over halfway through the season. Even so, Lewis still made 57 tackles and broke up two passes; he just didn't do enough against the pass. The former wide receiver has been surprisingly strong against the run since making the move.

Pushing hard for one of the safety spots is 5-10, 200-pound senior Terrell Jackson, a good veteran who made 29 tackles and broke up two passes in a limited role. The former corner made the move to strong safety, and if nothing else, he could become a nice veteran to use in nickel situations.

Trying to help boost the talent at corner is former running back Jeremy McGee, the UCLA transfer who sat out last year to become eligible. A star high school track man, he has the speed to handle himself at his new position if given more time to work. He'll rotate around with Green on the left side.

Watch Out For ... Green and McGee. The coaching staff quickly identified the corners, even with returning veterans, as being a big problem. With the offensive backfield and the receiving corps appearing to be solid, Green and McGee were expendable to the defense, and they've come through in practices so far.
Tackling. Considering this is a smallish group that's made up of all corner-sized defenders, everyone can hit. There have been plenty of chances in recent years, but now the DBs should be able to focus mostly on coverage.
Interceptions. The Rebels came up with a grand total of three in 2006, and the secondary snagged just three last year with two coming from Mouzon in the season opener. That's why Nutt wanted to upgrade the corners.
Outlook: Most offenses spent so much time running the ball on the Rebel front seven that they forgot about bombing on the light secondary. Those teams that wanted to throw, did. The safeties should be fine this season with Sanford and Brown a solid tandem, but the corner situation will be an issue all season long. It could take a year for everyone to feel comfortable, but the corners should grow into a bit of a strength by 2009.
Rating: 6

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Junior Joshua Shene might not have been consistent this off-season, but he's been solid for the last two years nailing 24 of 34 field goals and 11 of 17 last season. He has good enough range go connect from 50, but he missed four attempts inside the 40.

Juniors Rob Park and Justin Sparks will battle it out for the punting job, and while Parks will likely get his starting job back after averaging 39.7 yards per kick and putting 15 inside the 20, he has to do a better job of airing it out and a more consistent job of pinning it deep.

Top receiver Mike Wallace averaged 23 yards per kickoff return last year, while Marshay Green Average 23.4 yards per try. Green will try to do more on punt returns after averaging just four yards per try.

Watch Out For ... the punting job to be in question. Sparks is fine, but Park will get a shot to show off what he can do this fall. If Park is lights out, he could have the gig.
The return game. Green is far better than he showed as a punt returner. With all that's on his plate, Green will relinquish the kick return duties to Wallace, who's every bit as explosive.
Punt coverage. Here's the problem with the punting game, Sparks doesn't do enough to help out the net average. The return team didn't exactly do its part allowing 12.5 yards per return.
Outlook: Everything is fine, but it's not special. There needs to be more from the punting game, Shene needs to hit everything from close range, and Green needs to add more pizzazz to the punt returns. There are enough good veterans to be a little bit better in all areas, and if the kicking game is more consistent, the special teams will be a strength.
Rating: 7