A senior-stocked defensive line was expected to carry the day for Ole Miss last year, but it never really worked out that way.
First a heart condition then a torn ACL kept end Kentrell Lockett from ever being a factor, and junior college transfer Wayne Dorsey never performed to the level of the hype that preceded his arrival.
The Rebels had four senior interior linemen, but ultimately tackle LaMark Armour and linebacker D.T. Shackelford had to be moved to end to help solidify that position.
Through it all the Rebels gave up 152.8 rushing yards a game, not very good, but it was their best finish – ninth place – in any of the major SEC defensive categories.
Moving forward, the interior will look very different. Carlton Martin and Bryon Bennett, both redshirt freshmen from Madison, drew praise from their coaches this spring. Martin basically earned a starting job before a concussion ended his spring at the mid-way point.
Both weigh in at less than 290 and will often give up 20 pounds or more to the offensive linemen they oppose, a factor that caused defensive line coach Terry Price to describe his group as athletic with a wait-and-see to find how physical they will be.
Martin (6-1, 288) passed two bigger players – third-year sophomore Corey Gaines (6-1, 302) and junior college transfer Gilbert Pena (6-2, 336) – on the original spring depth chart.
Another light-weight the Rebels will count will be junior college signee Uriah Grant (6-1, 280), a Miami native who had six sacks and 17 tackles for loss at Fullerton Calif., CC last season. Rivals ranked Grant the nation’s 50th best juco player. He has an interesting resume with three four-year schools mentioned. He signed with Wake Forest but did not attend, was redshirted at West Virginia in 2008 and played at I-AA Eastern Kentucky in 2009 before transferring to Fullerton. Grant brings intriguing possibilities, but he’ll have to acclimate quickly.
Veteran Justin Smith, who has battled injuries throughout his career, is also in the mix for playing time, but at the interior spots, who was Martin and Bennett who seemed to impress the staff the most.
At the ends, Lockett’s return is huge, and the Rebels desperately need him to pick up his 2009 form when he had 10 tackles for loss and five sacks. If Lockett can hold down one end, the Rebels will have enough bodies to find production by committee if no one seems to emerge. Dorsey appeared to be improved in the spring but was held out for the last handful of practices with an injury.
Gerald Rivers and Jason Jones, both juniors, and Cameron Whigham, a sophomore, could be ready to take on increased roles.
On the hole, a defensive line that is inexperienced in the middle and was banged up on the ends, in addition to missing Lockett, held its own against an offensive line praised by Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt as one of the strengths of that side of the ball. The offensive line developed, and the run game came on, but the OL didn’t just line up and enforce its will on the DL.
That is a good sign for this group as the summer conditioning work approaches.