Spring Football Preview: Defense

Second in a series as spring practice begins tomorrow.

Defensive Line

Who’s Back: Breeland Speaks, Herbert Moore, Ross Donelly, D.J. Jones, Jordan Hebert, Issac Gross, Garrald McDowell, Tyler Pittman, Austrian Robinson, John Youngblood, Fadol Brown, Victor Evans, Marquise Haynes.

Who’s Not: Robert Nkemdiche, Woodrow Hamilton

Experience: Brown checked his draft status with the NFL but decided to stay in school. He starts at end, can play tackle if needed and led the team in QB hurries last year with 10. Haynes led in sacks with eight and played the run better as a sophomore. The wild card here is Issac Gross. If he can stay healthy he can be a rush presence from nose that was missing for much of 2015 though Jones got better as the season went along. Youngblood, a rising senior, does not wow you with freakish physical talent but knows the defense and will not be out of position, an attribute that is highly underrated.

Spring Blooms: Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Austrian Robinson, a 3-star from New York in the 2015 signing class, and true freshman Benito Jones a top 50 signee and early enrollee this winter. The school announced Robinson at 253 pounds on signing day in 2015. It now lists him at 292.

Spring is a big success if: Third-year sophomore Victor Evans elevates his play and takes on a significant role. Evans had 16 sacks as a high school senior in Dallas, and the Rebels need to develop playmakers behind their starters.


Who’s Back: Alex Ashlock, Elliot Markuson, Temario Strong, DeMarquis Gates, Shawn Curtis, John-Patrick Sherling, Jack Raborn, Tayler Polk, Terry Caldwell, Luke Davis, Ray Smith.

Who’s Not: C.J. Johnson, Christian Russell.

Experience: The Rebels were inconsistent at MLB last year, but Gates showed star potential as he role increased in the wake of Denzel Nkemdiche’s early departure. Gates would go on to lead the team in tackles in only four starts. Caldwell has seen the most action of returning middle linebackers with 32 tackles and two forced fumbles. Strong is a senior who has been mostly a special teams player.

Spring Blooms:  There are only two in the 4-2-5, but filling both LB spots has been problematic. Curtis was a guy that Hugh Freeze thought might help last year as a true freshman but redshirted. Early enrollee Donta Evans, a three-star signee, will go through drills. Both will get a look in the middle.

Spring is a big success if: The staff can identify a starter in the middle and depth on the outside. The MLB job is Porter’s for the taking if he has a big spring. Gates can do great things, but there is no experience to speak of behind him. Freshman Tariq Tisdale won’t arrive until the summer, but could help in the middle if no one emerges in the spring.

Defensive Backs

Who’s Back: AJ Moore, Tony Bridges, CJ Hampton, Antwain Smith, Zedrick Woods, Tony Conner, Armani Linton, Kailo Moore, Cam Ordway, Kendarious Webster, Jalen Julius, CJ Moore, Montrell Custis, Carlos Davis.

Who’s Not: Trae Elston, Mike Hilton.

Experience: Conner, if completely healthy from last year’s knee issues, will set the tone for the defense and will likely be a first-round pick in 2017. The loss of Hilton, who played three different positions in the secondary last year, is huge. Likewise, Trae Elston, a fierce hitter, will not be easily replaced. CJ Hampton is a favorite to take over one of the safety spots, but coaches would like to see him make a jump this spring. Kendarius Webster started all 13 games at one cornerback, and juco transfer Tony Bridges, who started 10, was playing with more confidence at the end of the season.

Spring Blooms: With openings at both back-end safety spots there are great opportunities for Woods and young players who played little or redshirted in 2015. Early enrollees Greg Eisworth and Myles Hartsfield will go through drills. Keep an eye on redshirts Montrell Custis and Armani Linton.

Spring is a big success if: Hampton gains coaches’ trust and becomes a leader in the back end, if Woods wins a job and if coaches can identify depth at cornerback. That could come from Davis, who continues to improve.


Denham Springs, La., native, Mississippian since 1989 with a stop in Meridian before arriving in Tupelo. Daily Journal beat writer since 1996, covering Ole Miss since 2002. Proud Northeast Louisiana alum. Follow me on Twitter @parrishalford and listen to John Davis and myself daily with The Ole Miss Beat on Rebel Sports Radio.

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  • Killer_Beeze

    Good stuff PA. Hopefully no one gets hurt in spring practice this year.
    Look forward to future reports.

  • Killer_Beeze

    Question: where will the Grove Bowl be played this year or will it be played at all since the stadium is undergoing expansion?

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