For the second-straight year this position features the Rebels’ most high-profile signee.
Fans will have to wait until August to get a look at Robert Nkemdiche, the nation’s No. 1 recruit. What Nkemdiche does between now and August will have impact the level of contribution he can make in his first year of college football.
It’s that way for everybody. It was that way for Channing Ward last year. After Ward dominated in all-star competition grades held up his NCAA clearing. He arrived late to camp and was never able to get fully coached in the Ole Miss system. He missed the bulk of individual work that goes on early in camp. When he arrived practice was more about game-planning and getting ready for the season opener.
Then the grind began.
When Ward was on the field you could see pure athleticism. He will be one of spring’s biggest story lines as defensive line coach Chris Kiffin predicts the Ward will make a big jump in the 15 workouts.
If that prediction holds true, and if Nkemdiche is the player that the recruiting analysts predict him to be, look for big things from the Ole Miss defensive ends.
Starters C.J. Johnson, a rising junior, and Cameron Whigham, a senior, both return. He had 55 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, broke up two passes and recovered a fumble for a touchdown against Auburn.
Whigham was less productive with 27 tackles and two tackles for loss.
Jason Jones, a senior last year, was more productive in four starts to Whigham’s 11. Jones had 27 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and three pressures.
Ward appeared in 12 games and finished with 21 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss. Much of his play came on special teams, but he held his own at LSU when Johnson missed most of the game with injury.
Ward may be best remembered for showing off his athleticism in the chase of Texas wide out Marquise Goodwin, an Olympic long jumper. Goodwin had a head start, and Ward never caught him, but the gap didn’t widen either.
D.T. Shackelford, a career linebacker, is trying to make a comeback after two knee surgeries. If successful, he could appear at end.
The bottom line is the Rebels need more pass rush off the edge, and that could come from Ward or Nkemdiche.