Simple approach yields results for Ole Miss Rebels’ secondary

By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – At a time when order needed to be restored in the Ole Miss secondary, Keith Burns decided against excessive charts and graphs. He didn’t delve into the technical deep.
He opted instead for a user friendly method that has Ole Miss defensive backs after two games with as many interceptions as they had after 11 games in 2010.
The Rebels intercepted just six passes last year. After picking off four against Southern Illinois they have five for the season, one of them returned for a touchdown.
Success for a secondary that was last in the SEC last year in pass defense efficiency has been about simplicity.
See ball, catch ball.
“Last year if we felt we didn’t have the receiver secured, then we weren’t supposed to look back for the ball,” said cornerback Marcus Temple, who had one the four picks last week.
Burns has taken away the burden of a judgment call in the middle of the action. It’s an approach that is different from what defensive backs were taught for many years.
“Back in the day guys were taught to run, and when he sticks his hands out, you stick your hands out. Receivers don’t let you do that any more. They don’t put their hands up till the ball’s there.
“You have to be in position. You can’t just look to be looking,” Burns said. “There’s a time and a feel for when the guy is coming down field, and he’s obviously not going to break off his route. You need to look back and become the receiver.”
First things first
Defensive backs looking back for the football was one of the first questions posed to Burns when he was hired in January. Burns, who coaches the cornerbacks, and Chris Vaughn, who coaches the safeties, set out to change things.
The Rebels are giving up passing yardage, their 211.0 yards a game ranking 10th in the SEC. Often teams have been able to exploit the middle of the field when the Rebels were blitzing.
Pass defensive efficiency considers other factors such as interceptions and touchdowns. The current Ole Miss rating of 107.9 ranks the Rebels No. 7 in the SEC. In the bigger picture, they’re 33rd in the country after finishing 2010 ranked No. 109.
“Coach Burns has told us since he first got here that he wanted us to get our eyes back for the ball. It’s like he already knew we had the ability to make plays. We just needed to see the ball,” Temple said.
The lack of turnovers gained by the defense in 2010 had the Rebels dragging bottom in another critical category – turnover margin. They were last in the SEC, 88th in the nation.
Currently the Rebels are at plus-1.0 per game, third in the SEC, tied for 26th in the nation. One of those was a 96-yard interception return for a touchdown by Charles Sawyer, a cornerback who has moved to safety.
It’s not enough to be in position to make the play if you don’t make the play.
“Finishing … Coach Burns made that a big point. Finishing. Its part of the code, and we live by the code – Be prepared, play hard, max speed, finish. You live by that you can’t go wrong,” Sawyer said.
A lot of football left
There is plenty of football to play before final grades are in.
This week’s opponent, Vanderbilt, hasn’t had a great deal of pass success in two games. Next week’s opponent, Georgia, has quarterback Aaron Murray, who is third in the league in yards per game, second in touchdowns thrown.
Burns sees the secondary getting better.
“There’s no doubt. It’s a position where every play you’re challenged in some aspect. Nine times out of 10 you line up across from the best guy on the field. So to me, you’ve got to have a little bit of swag or whatever they want to call it nowadays,” Burns said. “That comes from knowing you’re going to make the play. You can see when you’ve got it, and you know when you don’t.”
parrish.alford@journalinc.com