Spring Football: What we’ve learned on defense

As spring football draws to a close, what we’ve learned on defense. …

One thing I failed to mention on Monday was that there’s been no major injuries. That’s a win.

I compiled that post before news broke of Chad Kelly’s sports hernia surgery. It’s usually a minor procedure followed by a minor recovery.

We’ll see.

One recent point of reference, and not a good one, is former Ole Miss baseball player Sam Smith. Smith had sports hernia surgery prior to the 2015 season and struggled throughout what was his senior year.

Chad Kelly is a different level of athlete in a different sport. The guess here is Kelly rebounds fine.

If he does not then Ole Miss has a major problem, just as any team would that loses or has some other complication with a returning starter at quarterback, a very talented and experienced player.

There is drop-off between most first- and second-team players but especially at that position.

On to defense …

The Line – I like the potential to again have a deep defensive line in the post-Nkemdiche Era.

Freshman Benito Jones is enrolled and going through drills. All the services rated Jones extremely high, but ESPN seemed to like him more than others, listing him as a five-star recruit and the No. 7 overall player. He was listed as the No. 49 player by 247Sports.

While Jones is getting some work in it seems that sophomore Ross Donelly and redshirt freshman Austrian Robinson have been getting more work at the twos.

Maybe there’s more shuffling going on around those backups in the fall.

D.J. Jones and Breeland Speaks will be the starters. There’s not a ton of experience between those two, but what’s there is good.

Both appeared in every game and were playing well at the end of last season.

Jones had 40 tackles, Speaks 32. Jones’ four sacks – one in the Sugar Bowl – were second on the team to Marquis Haynes’ 10.

Jones is a darkhorse All-SEC candidate.

It’s important to develop the backups, and that’s getting done this spring, but you could see the bulk of the snaps going to Jones, Speaks and Issac Gross.

If Gross stays healthy – a very big if – it could make a huge impact on this line.

The ends are solid with Haynes and Fadol Brown.

As with Rod Taylor and Robert Conyers on offense, Brown’s absence this spring has freed up a lot more reps.

True freshman Charles Wiley has gotten in the mix, but keep an eye on Victor Evans. He’s a third-year guy from Dallas. He’s added some weight to get up to 238 pounds. He’s gotten some praise this spring from defensive coordinator Dave Wommack who doesn’t hand out praise easily.

Wiley is big and athletic. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze jokes about Wiley’s speed and his ability to recover from being out of position and still make a play. The truth is he won’t have many opportunities to do that in games. If he’s out of position he won’t be playing.

High school kids give up a lot by leaving high school early. That matters more to some than others. It’s a huge benefit for the early enroll guys to have this spring to learn their way so they can be in position.

Linebackers – As with the offensive line, some of the most important parts aren’t around for spring. These are parts the Rebels didn’t even know they had until a little while after signing day.

Chances are that Oregon State graduate transfer Rommel Mageo will be the starting middle linebacker. He led the Beavers with 87 tackles last year.

Junior college transfer Detric Bing-Dukes could be his backup. Bing-Dukes is coming in from Iowa Western CC by way of Athens, Ga. He’s a Georgia kid who signed with the home state school but was stuck behind older players and left in search of playing time. Why a kid leaves is always a good question, but it doesn’t appear that it was about off-field issues with Bing-Dukes. He’s just trying to get on the field.

Bing-Dukes had 76 tackles last year, three times posting double-figures.

Outside linebacker DeMarquis Gates, now a junior, has star potential. He has great range, and he’s shown that again this spring.

The Rebels struggled to find much production at middle linebacker after C.J. Johnson’s injury last year.

One who got a shot was Terry Caldwell, a junior college transfer, who appeared in 13 games with three starts. He’s played both middle and outside this spring.

Defensive backs – There are glaring holes at strong safety (Rover) and free with the losses of Mike Hilton and Trae Elston.

Zedrick Woods (strong) and C.J. Hampton (free) are the starters back there now, and that’s not likely to change.

Wommack says Woods, a sophomore, has a high football IQ. He’s a versatile player that they think will get better and better as he focuses on one position in the secondary.

Hampton was a high-profile recruit out of Meridian who was signed with the idea that he would one day be a leader and a major player in the secondary.

Now is that time. He would be farther along the path had he not missed three games with the suspension at the beginning of last season and had an injury issue later on.

There have been a lot of guys moving around at the safety spots recently.

Freshman Myles Hartsfield, another early enroll guy by way of prep school, found his way on to Freeze’s radar early. It’s easy to see why. Hartsfield is a physical player and is a member of the “Looks the Part Club.” He started out at Huskie and has also played some strong safety.

Tony Conner is being held out this spring as he recovers from a second knee surgery. He’s expected to make a full recovery. If he does, he’s a game-changer. He’s that kind of impact player who flies around and makes big hits and plays.

Last fall many had projected Connor as a first-round draft pick. Had he not gotten injured he’d have had a decision to make and could very well have been a fourth first-rounder from Ole Miss in the upcoming draft.

It was a different defense when Connor was out last year, especially when the Rebels were trying to guard the middle of the field just in front of the line of scrimmage.

A.J. Moore has gotten some work at Huskie, but I’m thinking you’ll see Hartsfield there if Connor needs to come out of the game.

Redshirt freshman Armani Linton has played both strong and free. He’s another extremely gifted athlete, but he needs to make strides in his reaction time on the field.

We’ll meet with selected coaches and players this afternoon, and I’ll have a little more on the blog this evening.

Spring drills wrap up Saturday.

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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