By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt was asked about his pass defense early in Monday’s news conference. It’s a question that doesn’t typically steer conversation to the defensive line.
One of Nutt’s first responses, though, regarding how to improve the weakest link on his defense was to talk about pass rush.
The most casual football observers can see the relationship between pass rush and pass defense. Few quarterbacks can beat you with a good throw while the threat of bodily harm looks them in the eye. No one can make that throw while laying on the ground.
Yes, the Ole Miss pass rush can get better, but it hasn’t been bad. The Rebels are second in the SEC in sacks with 13 through four games, an area that has improved since the season opener.
Relying on pass rush to defend the pass is flawed theology, and that wasn’t what Nutt was doing. His response was more of a challenge to his front seven to keep bringing it.
A year ago, the Rebels were third in the SEC in pass defense efficiency, but they go into this week’s SEC game against Kentucky ranked last with a 147.1 rating.
A year ago the Rebels had senior cornerbacks who were good, not great, but they also got their help from an All-SEC safety, Kendrick Lewis.
Now there are first-year starters at corner in Jeremy McGee and Marcus Temple, and Kendrick Lewis is in the NFL.
It’s a secondary in transition, an unknown going into this season, and it hasn’t been a very good start. Opposing quarterbacks have found soft spots in zone coverage and have often made accurate throws in single coverage.
“We have to do a better job of getting those guys in the right position, playing the ball in the air, going to attack, and being physical,” Nutt said.
The Ole Miss secondary is the only unit in the SEC yet to record an interception. Strong safety Johnny Brown leads the team in pass break-ups with four, and Brown, gimpy with knee and hamstring issues, is unlikely to play against Kentucky.
Nutt stresses position, but the physical aspect is equally important. At times, Ole Miss players have been in position but haven’t been able to break up the pass.
“We have to work on our fundamentals more in practice, man press, how to control a receiver off the ball,” Temple said.
The Rebels sacked Fresno State quarterback Ryan Colburn five times last week, but Colburn also completed 35 of 45 passes – 75 percent – for 390 yards and four touchdowns. Often the pressure was there, but Colburn would step up in the pocket or slide a few steps left or right to buy enough time to make the pass.
It’s the same style employed by Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline, a fifth-year senior. He threw two interceptions last week and completed just 53 percent of his attempts in large part because of the rush he faced from Florida defenders.
So yes, the secondary must have help. It’s vital. And the Rebels must overcome the loss of one of their best pass rushers, end Kentrell Lockett, who tore an ACL against Fresno.
But the Rebels must also be better man-on-man and become physical enough to bat the ball away – and take the ball away – from physical wide receivers.
Whether pass rush or pass coverage Ole Miss must find some way to hold down opposing passing games or the fight for bowl-eligibility will be over before it reaches the later rounds.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.