BY PARRISH ALFORD
OXFORD – Learning a new defense hasn't been as easy as A, B, C and 1, 2, 3.
Ole Miss players have returned to those basics this week, focusing more on themselves than their opponent, third-ranked Florida.
The Rebels and Gators kick off at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
After the 2006 season, Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron added a veteran defensive coordinator in John Thompson but lost a Butkus Award-winning linebacker in Patrick Willis.
Also gone is fleet-footed playmaker Rory Johnson.
Three games into the season the result has been a unit that ranks ninth or lower among SEC teams in every major defensive category. The Rebels are last in total defense, giving up 466 yards a game.
Following the Rebels' 31-17 loss at Vanderbilt, Orgeron said part of the problem is talent.
“It's not quite the caliber of linebacker we're used to having,” he said. “Obviously there's a deficit there.”
Facing a spread offense against their first three opponents – Florida will be yet another such team – tends to take advantage of inexperienced players by requiring them to make tackles in open space.
Missed tackles have been a big problem for the Rebels. Missed assignments have been another.
“I don't know if I'd say I'm surprised at the way we've struggled. I'll say I'm disappointed,” said junior college transfer Tony Fein, who has started two games at middle linebacker, Willis' old spot.
Fein would not say why a sub-par performance did not catch him off guard.
He did not say the system was difficult to learn.
End Marcus Tillman, however, cuts the linebackers some slack.
“The D-line is pretty simple,” he said. “Some things are really difficult in the linebacker spot. Patrick and Rory were just beasts. They were really good at what they did.”
The Rebels have in fact gotten some strong play at end from Tillman, with 15 tackles, and Greg Hardy with 27. Hardy also has six tackles for loss and three sacks.
Ole Miss also got some big plays by forcing five turnovers in the season-opening win over Memphis but has forced just one turnover since.
“Every week we have a new outside linebacker, and it's impossible to go through a week and put him in every position he will see in a game,” Orgeron said.
Last week that new linebacker was junior college transfer Lamar Brumfield, who lasted just one possession before being pulled in favor of Jamie Phillips.
Phillips is a walk-on junior college transfer by way of Lafayette County High School. He has gotten the most snaps at weak side linebacker since Jonathan Cornell was injured late in the first quarter against Missouri.
Sanford won't move
Orgeron has decided against moving strong safety Jamarca Sanford up to linebacker where he played the second half of last season, because the backup safeties are freshmen.
“We're playing with three new linebackers, and they're making mistakes,” Orgeron said. “I am disappointed that they kept throwing the same play at us, and we couldn't stop it.
“Let me say this. Mental errors are on the coaches, and we need to do a better job of simplifying our defense and giving them the mental picture.”
Thompson quickly agreed, saying it was time to stop trying to “outsmart” the opposition.
“It's obvious that's happened to us the last couple of weeks. We've spent so much time game-planning that we haven't gotten to the nuts and bolts of getting off a block and making a tackle.”
Fein, 25 years old with military service under his belt, was an All-American at Scottsdale, Ariz., Community College. He was not around for spring drills but said there was no trouble picking up Thompson's system in August.
“In the SEC, practice and games are two different things,” Fein said. “You can be great in practice, but you have to perform when the lights are on.”