Once fearsome, Rebels' defense not scaring anyone

OXFORD — Through the first two games, Ole Miss’ vaunted “Landsharks” defense has disappeared.

In every game for the past two years a Ole Miss defensive player would make a hard tackle, force a fumble or grab an interception, leap to his feet and then put a hand up sideways against his forehead like a fin.

It’s the signal for “Landsharks,” which has caught on as the unit’s nickname.

It’s so popular that it’s even one of the five finalists for the school’s on-field mascot, which is supposed to be unveiled sometime this year.

The Rebels are trying to figure out a way to make more on-field stops after giving up a combined 62 points against Jacksonville State and Tulane.

Ole Miss (1-1) hosts Vanderbilt (0-2) on Saturday in Oxford

“I don’t know what the problem is,” senior linebacker Allen Walker said. “I’m trying to work it out like everybody else.”

The defensive frustration is surprising considering Ole Miss has loads of veterans among the defensive line and linebackers. But the numbers don’t lie: The Rebels rank last in the Southeastern Conference in scoring defense (31 points per game), 11th out of 12 teams in total defense (333.5 yards per game) and 10th in pass defense (235 yards per game).

Ole Miss (1-1) begins conference play this week against Vanderbilt (0-2, 0-1 SEC) in Oxford, and coach Houston Nutt knows the team’s defensive issues could be badly exposed in the brutal SEC if things aren’t patched up quickly.

Nutt said improvement will have to begin with better play from defensive tackle Jerrell Powe and defensive end Kentrell Lockett, a pair of seniors who combined for 22 tackles for a loss last season.

If those guys are creating havoc at the line of scrimmage, it means the Rebels’ young secondary — which has no interceptions this season — has a better chance to make big plays.

“When you’re replacing three starters in the secondary, you’ve got to depend on (the front seven),” Nutt said. “They’ve got to get off blocks and do better.”

Ole Miss does have some promising young talent in the secondary, including safety Damien Jackson, a transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, and freshmen cornerbacks Charles Sawyer and Tony Grimes.

But as expected, their football education hasn’t come without some mistakes.

“It’s not the speed of the players that’s a problem,” said Sawyer, who made 10 tackles in Saturday’s 27-13 victory over Tulane. “But it’s the speed of the plays and the calls. When you have game experience it all slows down. You just get more comfortable. The older guys tell me to stay focused, handle my assignment and then everything else takes care of itself.”

Vanderbilt coach Robbie Caldwell said that even with the recent issues, the Ole Miss defensive line was formidable — especially with 6-foot-2, 320-pound Jerrell Powe clogging the middle of the field.

“He’s a very powerful man,” Caldwell said. “He caused us problems last year, and he’s not the only one. They’ve got a very good defensive front.”

It’s hard to find anybody at Ole Miss who doesn’t agree with Caldwell’s assessment. Walker is confident that the Landsharks are long overdue a return.

“That’s supposed to be the strength of our team,” he said. “Now we’ve got to act like it.”

David Brandt/The Associated Press