PARRISH ALFORD: Open date offers chance to improve Rebels' run defense

By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – Different isn’t always a bad thing, but the Ole Miss defense is struggling for results early with a makeup along its front that is quite unlike the Rebels’ more recent personality.
The last several years – going back to Peria Jerry and following his very successful time with guys like Jerrell Powe, Ted Laurent, Lawon Scott – an Ole Miss defensive line recruited by former coach Ed Orgeron was big and physical.
This season’s new interior players – Justin Smith, Uriah Grant, Bryon Bennett, Carlton Martin – are not built the same way. They’re not as heavy. As the season started coming into view, you could see these guys being more finesse, less physical.
It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, just different. Quickness can be an asset as much as strength, and the rushing defense in 2010 didn’t crack the NCAA top 50, its 152.8 yards a game allowed ranking ninth in the SEC, 61st in America. You have to supplement brute strength with some degree of athleticism.
You also have to supplement athleticism with strength. Without that physical nature, teams this season have been able to run on the Rebels with alarming success.
Vanderbilt hit big plays in the run game, and while Georgia didn’t have a 70-plus yard touchdown run, freshman Isaiah Crowell got loose off the right side for 29 yards on third-and-9 when the Rebels had Georgia back at its 2. It wasn’t because the Rebels were blown off the ball but because they couldn’t shed blocks.
It was much the same story last Saturday, when Fresno State gained 163 yards on the ground, 123 of them from small, shifty tailback Robbie Rouse.
Through five games Ole Miss is giving up 193 rushing yards a game, 99th in the nation, 10th in the league.
The Rebels aren’t getting pushed around, but they’re not dominating their individual pieces of real estate.
Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix uses the phrase “hell of a lot” to describe the improvement his unit has made in a year.
They have indeed been better in the secondary, though cornerback Wesley Pendleton, their best cover guy, didn’t play well at Fresno. They’ve been a defense that has played better later in games, one that has produced more turnovers and made timely plays.
But there’s a necessary nastiness missing, and that appears to be the point of emphasis from Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt for this week’s open date.
“They’ve got some real critical stops, and they’ve been really good in the red zone, and we’ve gotten more take-aways. I’m proud of all that,” Nutt said. “I just want to be more physical on the defensive line and with linebackers. I want our safeties to come up and make tackles. We’ve got to be real physical at the point of attack.”
Parrish Alford (parrish.alford@journalinc.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily at NEMS360.com.