By John Davis, Oxford Citizen
Ole Miss is 9-3 this season and headed to play in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl because of a stout defense.
The Rebels finished the season ranked No. 1 in scoring defense, only allowing 166 total points. Cornerback Senquez Golson may have garnered the biggest headlines thanks to his nine interceptions this year, but Ole Miss’ biggest improvement came from the defensive line.
With a healthy CJ Johnson at defensive end and an improved Robert Nkemdiche in the middle, the Rebels showed a lot of depth, and results, up front.
Maintaining that depth, with highly regarded prospects, is a must for coach Hugh Freeze and his defensive staff.
Defensive tackle DJ Jones, who helped lead East Mississippi Community College to an NJCAA national title this year, is a top target in the middle. Jones (6-foot-2, 315 pounds) is back home in Wren, S.C. getting ready to make a final decision on where he will be playing next fall.
Jones dominated up front for the Lions, finishing with 49 tackles and eight sacks this season. He is being pursued by the Rebels, Florida State, the team he committed to during the fall, and Alabama. The Crimson Tide seem to be almost completely out of the picture as Jones failed to make a trip to Tuscaloosa, Ala., this weekend.
Unlike quarterback Chad Kelly, who just picked the Rebels, EMCC head coach Buddy Stephens knew that Jones would make his decision, and then sign, when he was back home in South Carolina. Stephens compared Jones to former LSU defensive tackle standout Booger McFarland.
Last season Ole Miss pursued another EMCC tackle, Jarran Reed, who ended up picking Alabama after showing serious interest in Freeze and the Rebels. Stephens has coached several top linemen over the past five years, with two landing in the NFL
“This guy is really good. We’ve had a lot of guys, here and he’s better than all of them,” Stephens said. “I got one at Kentucky, two at Alabama and I had two at Florida last year and he’s better than any of them. He is the best that we’ve had here. That’s saying as much as you can say. He is an NFL guy, without a doubt. Give him one more season, and he will be fine.”
Stephens went on to say that whoever Jones picks — he wants to be on a team that plays a four-man front like Ole Miss — then the current defensive linemen will all get better. They also better be ready to compete to keep a starting spot.
“If you have four defensive linemen, he would have to be one of them,” Stephens said. “If Nkemdiche is the three technique tackle, then he is the shade nose. If they’ve got somebody better than him right now, they’re going to be really, really good. Both of them. He’s a baller. He’s a masher.”
Because Reed is so familiar to Ole Miss fans, Stephens even answered the question about whether the two are similar. This past season at Alabama, Reed finished fifth on Alabama’s highly regarded defense with 52 stops, five pass breakups and a sack. He played in all 13 games for the Crimson Tide.
“He is similar to Jarran (Reed) in that they are both very physical. But he’s more physical with his hands,” Stephens said. “He’s a little shorter than Jarran, which makes his center of gravity different. You just never see him get blocked, ever. He has got a very, very bright future ahead of him. He really does.”
A final decision for Jones could come at any time, but the first day JUCO recruits can sign with a four-year school is Wednesday. Jones is eligible to enroll at any of his choices in January and go through spring drills.