No position group carries the banner for Ole Miss’ high expectations for 2015 more than the defensive line.
Hugh Freeze and Dave Wommack haven’t been shy about saying they believe this defense could be as good or better than last year’s which led the nation in points allowed at 16.0 per game.
While there is exciting potential at some other positions on defense there’s proven experience up front.
It starts with Robert Nkemdiche of course. Barring the unforeseen this will be his last season in Oxford. Nkemdiche is the only one of the three most prominent names from that 2013 class who isn’t coming off a major injury.
It’s clear what he means to his defense by the resources other teams commit to block him. He’s expected to be off next year’s draft board before 10 picks have passed. Still, he can improve his college game by being a better finisher. Just four tackles for loss and two sacks for Nkemdiche last year.
He may get some help in that regard from junior college transfer D.J. Jones. Freeze says Jones (6-2, 310) will play both the nose and will back up Nkemdiche at tackle.
Obviously Jones is still learning his way, but it seems that if he’s as dominant a player as Freeze believes he can be that you would want both he and Nkemdiche on the field at the same time as often as possible.
Maybe it works out that way, but you don’t want to name a newcomer as the starter at nose when you have two experienced seniors in Issac Gross and Woodrow Hamilton.
Gross is small and quick and is among the SEC’s career leaders in tackles for loss with 27. Hamilton is a bigger, more physical presence.
Jones may be able to give you both styles plus athleticism. If so, maybe fewer resources are committed to Nkemdiche.
This group needs to use its talent and experience to become more dominant against the run. It was the secondary – namely cornerback Senquez Golson – that was mostly responsible for the Rebels’ positive turnover margin (plus-0.54, fourth in the SEC) last year.
Ole Miss gave up 136.9 yards per game on the ground, fifth in the SEC and 29th in America. At times the Rebels were dominant (Memphis, Tennessee), but the SEC’s better rushing offenses (LSU, Auburn) had big yards against the Rebels in big games, both losses.
When Nkemdiche’s gone the “face” of the defensive front could be Breeland Speaks. The redshirt freshman impressed his coaches in spring.
Another young talent to keep an eye on is end Victor Evans. His potential is one reason Wommack and Freeze thought it would be a good idea to move C.J. Johnson to middle linebacker.
Fadol Brown is back and gives the Rebels a big run-stopping type body on the edge.
Marquis Haynes hopes to improve his game against the run this year. If he does he’ll be a star. He had 7.5 sacks last year. That led the team and ranked fourth nationally among freshmen.
Two incoming freshmen ends, Joe Anderson and Rasool Clemons, have ground to cover to become eligible. Tackles Ross Donelly and Austrian Robinson are redshirt candidates.