Art Kaufman laughingly admits he leads the SEC in staff meetings.
“That’s the way it is when you rebuild your defense,” said the defensive coordinator for the Ole Miss Rebels. “You can’t let any detail get by and you’ve got to stay on top of everything.”
It also gives Kaufman an opportunity to take a jab at his friend, defensive tackle coach Don Dunn. “I like staff meetings because I can let him (Dunn) know I expect him to finally do some coaching this season.”
Kidding aside, it’s hard to imagine Kaufman and his staff Terry Price (ends), John Lovett (secondary) and Dunn coaching any harder or better than last year.
The Ole Miss defense was a major surprise, far exceeding expectation levels, especially considering the staff turnover and scheme switch. More impressively, the 4-3 defense kept improving as the season progressed.
Kaufman, who coaches the linebackers, hopes that trend continues, but qualifies the conditions.
“We’ve got to find a bell-cow. We had that in (graduated linebacker) Michael Lowery, but we don’t now,” Kaufman said. “It could be one guy or a group of guys, but we’re still in the process of finding out.”
The Rebels have only three players with any experience on the defensive front. Kaufman likes to have 10 guys in the front four slots. It’s obvious this spring is crucial to depth development.
“On the first day (defensive end) Quentin (Wilson) gets hurt and that cuts down our numbers there even more,” Kaufman said. “Injuries seem to run in cycles. But we’ve had more than we want on defense.”
Eli Anding, who was switched from U-Back to outside linebacker, lasted three days before slipping in the mud and suffering a groin injury. Johnny Desler, last year’s nickel back, has a knee sprain.
On the positive side, Kaufman saw enough of Anding in three days to admit, “Eli is going to help us. You can stick him any position and he can help you.”
Defensive end Morris Scott and cornerback Tim Strickland “have been the two guys to make the biggest jump in status this spring,” Kaufman said. “Both are going to contribute in the fall.”
Kyle Wicker, the former inside linebacker, has been impressive at defensive end. Just as importantly to Kaufman, the senior’s weight is back up to 230 and his speed appears improved and better-suited to the new position.
“At linebacker last year, Kyle was about 220 pounds to start the season. Every week he just kept dropping weight. I was scared to check it at the end of the season.”
Kaufman is most pleased with “the way the guys have practiced. This spring, our guys know the drills and the tempo we want. We’ve been able to spend more time teaching and getting some things done that we weren’t able to get done last spring.”
While the defensive staff speeds toward the April 13 Red-Blue Game, Kaufman is excited about the newcomers for the fall. He won’t hesitate to go with a true freshman, as was the case with cornerback Gary Thigpen last season, if performance merits it.
“It’s going to be tough for a true freshman to break into our secondary,” Kaufman said. “But they’ll get a strong look everywhere else. If they can play, they’re going to be on the field and I believe we signed some guys that can play.”
Chris Burrows covers Ole Miss football for the Daily Journal.