By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – It was the event of the year on the 6-year-olds’ social calendar, and Kane Wommack deviated sharply from his peer group.
He attended the Halloween carnival dressed not as Spiderman, Casper or Scooby-Doo. He improvised and wore a ball cap, a whistle and shirt that on the back said, “Coach,” penned by his mother’s loving hand.
At age 6, his career path was set. His mother knew it. Kane knew it and gave it his stamp of approval.
Coaching was what he knew, because his father, Dave Wommack was full speed into his life’s work.
That was 20 years ago. Now Dave Wommack – with more than 30 years of coaching experience — is in his second year as defensive coordinator at Ole Miss.
“From that day on, I said I wanted to be a football coach. That passion has never changed, and it’s just grown from there,” said Kane Wommack, who is beginning his second season as a defensive graduate assistant on his father’s staff.
While the Rebels’ new push-the-tempo offense got the headlines in Hugh Freeze’s first year as coach, Kane’s dad took a defense with questionable talent and depth and took giant steps forward from the previous season.
The Rebels were competitive defensively. They got better as the season played out, and Dave Wommack helped them reestablish an identity and play a big part in the team’s surprising 7-6 bowl-winning season.
“The way that we work things our secondary is a totally different unit than the front end, so we can turn a 4-2-5 if you will into a 3-3 or a 3-4. It’s simple on us and yet it’s multiple to the other teams. We want to, if you will, be the cat not the mouse,” Dave Wommack says.
The 4-2-5 employs a fifth defensive back. It’s called the Husky at Ole Miss, and it helps get more speed on the field, a big factor as the Rebels ranked second in the SEC in sacks, first in tackles for loss.
Ole Miss was just ninth out of 14 SEC teams in total defense, a testament to the strength of the conference. The Rebels made remarkable improvement in the national rankings. Wommack inherited a group that finished No. 96 in scoring defense, No. 90 in total defense and No. 112 against the run.
After spring drills in 2012 Wommack’s evaluations led him to remark that his unit had “five or six” players who could help win in the SEC.
More emerged. When the season ended the Rebels had improved 36 spots in scoring defense, 44 in total defense and a whopping 87 spots against the run.
With 10 starters returning and a talented signing class arriving, he’s hoping for more improvement.
Senior cornerback Charles Sawyer calls Wommack’s defense “very complex” where one call could have two or more meanings. Players have to keep up.
They did a better job of that, and of trusting a new staff, after a humiliating experience against Texas. The Rebels had won the first two games of the Freeze Era and faced Texas and its massive traveling fan base in an Ole Miss home game on a national stage. The Longhorns rolled up almost 700 yards and 66 points.
“They didn’t get it. We had played two weaker opponents before and had success with that,” Wommack said. “We had guys that were taking the dives that were supposed to be out on speed sweeps and that type of thing. It was really disheartening. Texas made it totally clear, crystal clear, to them that things were going to be the same if they didn’t change.”
The biggest change was trust. That showed up mostly in the form of reading keys in order to be in position to make plays.
“It started changing as we progressed more over the season. Different players made plays, and they realized they made them because their eyes were in the right place. Everybody started to see when we watched film that coach said their eyes were in the right place when they made that play. It started happening,” Sawyer said.
The Ole Miss job is the 12th stop for Wommack, a Kimberling City, Mo., native, and he calls this the “latter” stage of his career. He’s a three-time nominee for the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach, and before connecting with Freeze sought unsuccessfully to get into high school coaching where he thought he’d wind things up.
He’s moved a lot, sometimes for personal reasons more than professional, but has been told to leave just once.
Ironically, that was from his defensive coordinator position in 2004 at Arkansas under Houston Nutt, the head coach and staff he helped replace at Ole Miss seven years later.
“The Arkansas deal was extremely difficult. I grew up about an hour and a half from there. Any man that would say that emotionally that doesn’t affect you is wrong, but I had tremendous faith that God was going to use me and put me where he needed to put me.”
The depth of their Christian convictions is a common thread between Wommack and Freeze and is one reason Wommack, 57, was intrigued by the idea of working with Freeze.
The two got together at the suggestion of mutual friends – former Ole Miss defensive coordinator John Thompson and current Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, both with strong ties in the state of Arkansas – after Freeze was named head coach at Arkansas State.
When he first learned of Wommack’s interest, Freeze was not equally intrigued.
“I was very reluctant at first. I kind of had the mindset that I wanted to go after a young go-getter, an energetic guy,” Freeze said.
Freeze made a number of calls in his background check, including to Tyrone Nix. Nix’s first coaching job was at his alma mater, Southern Miss, when Wommack was on staff there. Nix was the defensive coordinator at Ole Miss – under Nutt – when Freeze called and would be on the move after Freeze was hired at Ole Miss in December of 2011.
“I finally decided to interview him and ended up feeling that he was the best fit for me. It’s probably good that I didn’t go with a young energetic guy. We probably would not have balanced as well as Dave and I have.”
Freeze’s decision paid off as Wommack led a turnaround of the Arkansas State defense.
The Red Wolves in 2010 ranked No. 91 in scoring defense and No. 100 or worse in the other three categories.
Under Wommack a year later they ranked No. 14 in both rushing defense and scoring defense, No. 17 in pass efficiency defense and No. 21 in total defense.
After Freeze decided a few more years in the rear view mirror wouldn’t be a bad thing, he and Wommack quickly hit it off.
Freeze calls his defensive coordinator “invaluable” to the process. He meets with Wommack and the defensive staff to know what the game plan is, but it’s Wommack’s plan.
There is “complete trust” as Freeze puts its, a visible chemistry that allows the head coach to focus on offense and recruiting.
“Hugh is a relentless recruiter, but he does things the right way on the field and off the field. He’s a prime example of what a man should be, and he’s hired people like that,” Wommack said. “These kids notice that. How you affect these people has an umbrella affect down the road. How I influence Denzel Nkemdiche is going to affect thousands of people down the road, because he’s going to influence people who influence other people.”
For Wommack, influencing his athletes isn’t about yelling and screaming. The best communication can occur when words are minimized. When it comes to emotions, sometimes less is more.
“At halftime he just comes in with his notepad and says ‘This is what we’re doing great, this is what we’re doing wrong, and this is what we need to do to win the game,’” Sawyer said. “He’s very calm. He may raise his voice a little bit, but it’s not to get on you. It’s more that he wants it so bad for you.”
Wommack’s second Ole Miss defense will have much more experience than his first.
Some jobs are secure. Competition in some spots – such as Chief Brown pushing Cody Prewitt at free safety – has made the defense better.
Wommack knows he’ll need his new guys in key roles. Unlike Kane’s career revelation at the Halloween throw down, he just doesn’t know the exact nature of those roles.
“Some of them will have a quicker thought process than the other ones will. Certainly I hope there are two or three guys that are able to help us, because we do need help in our two deep still. We’ll see how that comes out,” he says.
“That’s a hard thing to predict.”