By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt was hoping that after 15 spring practices his defense would resemble a crime-scene investigation.
The Rebels were ninth or worse in every major defensive category in 2010, and this fall he wants them to hit and run.
A more “physical” style of play was a major talking point of Nutt’s pre-spring news conference. Increased speed was an obvious goal of his recruiting.
At the conclusion of drills, coaches believe they laid the ground work for improvement, starting with tackling.
The improved speed comes in part at cornerback from junior college transfer Wesley Pendleton.
“I feel like we were more physical at several positions, and I feel like we improved fundamentally, and tackling is the No. 1 fundamental on defense,” defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said. “I feel like we put ourselves in position more to eliminate big plays and get guys on the ground.”
Ole Miss gave up 399.17 yards a game last year, last in the SEC. The Rebels allowed 35.17 points a game, last in the league and No. 107 out of 120 FBS teams nationally.
Nix said missed tackles often led to big plays and touchdowns in 2010.
He is optimistic that his squad will be better without its best player. Junior linebacker D.T. Shackelford sustained a torn ACL near the end of spring drills and is most likely out for the season.
Nix cited the linebackers, the group he coaches, as examples of physical play.
There’s good size in the group, particularly with sophomore Mike Marry (6-2, 248), the anticipated replacement for Jonathan Cornell at middle linebacker.
Nix praised the play of sophomore Clarence Jackson and redshirt freshman Ralph Williams, who appear to have worked their way into the playing rotation.
Nix said he expects incoming freshman C.J. Johnson to play, and he didn’t limit Johnson’s role to back-up. “I”m just telling it like it is, he’s going to play.”
Pendleton was a track All-American at Co-Lin Community College. In spite of a successful football career he wasn’t overwhelmed with big-time offers, but Nutt called him the “surprise” of the spring.
“We knew he was fast. We didn’t know he had that kind of speed and those hips,” Nutt said. “We think he’ll really help us.”
Both cornerback spots will be up for grabs when August practice begins with Pendleton, third-year sophomore Charles Sawyer and senior Marcus Temple – who missed spring drills following sports hernia surgery – as the leading candidate.
Whether starting or off the bench, Nix sees a big role for Pendleton.
“We feel like we can lock him down on several receivers throughout this conference,” he said.
That would certainly help a defensive line with two new starters on the interior. The return of Kentrell Lockett, who was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA, will help solidify one of the end spots, but the Rebels will be much smaller and far less experienced inside.
Last year, Jerrell Powe, Ted Laurent and Lawon Scott each weighed in at more than 300 pounds, Powe and Scott considerably more. The top candidates at defensive tackle and nose tackle this spring were all less than 290 pounds, except for senior Justin Smith at 298.
Among the top performers in the spring were Madison Central redshirt freshmen Carlton Martin and Bryon Bennett, though Martin’s spring ended after eight days with a concussion.
The Rebels will add another candidate for one of the down spots when signee Uriah Grant arrives (6-1, 280) arrives. Grant had 17 tackles for loss at Fullerton (Calif.) Community College last season.
“We need him to be another anchor, to give us some pass rush inside, but first and foremost he needs to be a physical guy to create havoc and be disruptive inside. We think we’ll get it from him,” Nutt said.
Grant will have to acclimate quickly without the added advantage of spring drills that Martin had.
“We feel like we have three potential guys (at defensive tackle) and hopefully one guy will separate himself. Before the injury Carlton was doing that. He would be the guy if we were starting today and he was healthy and well,” Nix said.
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600 or firstname.lastname@example.org.