Not much is clear and easy to understand in the chaotic world of College Football. However, one thing that is as clear as day is that Ole Miss’s defense was awful in 2016. The Rebels ranked 100th in the FBS in scoring defense (34 points per game) while also allowing 246 yards rushing per game. While the numbers the Rebels defense allowed were embarrassing, Ole Miss still may have one of the more talented defensive lines in the SEC. As the other defensive position groups begin to gradually improve (there’s really no way safety and linebacker can be worse), the talent along the Ole Miss defensive line will have a better chance to reveal itself during the 2017 season.
Leading The Pack
The obvious place to start with this positional breakdown is with senior, Marquis Haynes. This defensive end may not have prototypical size for his position (6-3, 230), but his speed coming off the edge rivals any other rush end in the country. Haynes currently ranks third in school history with 24.5 sacks to his credit. His speed and athleticism will also allow him to line up at outside linebacker in certain packages. This experience could prove to be very valuable as it will most likely be the position he plays at the next level. Haynes is also the 2017 Chucky Mullins Courage Award winner. This award is given to an Ole Miss defensive player who best exemplifies character, leadership, and determination on and off the field. Expect huge numbers in the TFL and sack column for Haynes this fall.
At the other defensive end spot, Ole Miss’s preseason depth chart lists Syracuse transfer, Qaadir Sheppard as the starter. The transfer played his freshman season at Syracuse in 2015, transferred to Ole Miss in 2016 and sat out the season due to transfer rules. During his time as an Orangeman, he only registered one tackle and one interception. Sheppard is inexperienced and will have to become acclimated to life in the SEC rather quickly. He does, however, provide a more traditional type of defensive end for the Rebels and is listed at 6-3, 249.
The defensive tackle position has a lot to prove this season after underperforming in 2016. A player who is the embodiment of this underachieving unit is Breeland Speaks, the junior who is listed as a starting DT. After redshirting during the 2014 season, Speaks burst onto the scene in 2015 compiling 32 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss as Robert Nkemdiche‘s back up. It was believed that Speaks would take over a starting spot and increase his production in 2016, but instead, he took a step back. He only had 28 tackles during the 2016 season. Speaks, who showcased the obvious talent he has in 2015, must get over his sophomore slump and step up in 2017.
At the nose tackle spot, sophomore Benito Jones gets the nod. Jones was one of the many elite recruits in Ole Miss’s top 10 recruiting class in 2016. Listed as high as a five star prospect and one of the top players in the state of Mississippi coming out of high school, Jones had high expectations as a true freshman. He lived up to them fairly well and registered 39 tackles during his freshman campaign. Jones is a prototypical run-stuffing defensive tackle who has great size (6-2, 315). Much like Speaks in 2016, Jones will be expected to ramp up his production as he is thrust into a starting role during his sophomore season.
As up-tempo, spread football has taken over the College Football world, depth along the defensive line is now more important than ever. The Rebels have a good mix of talent and experience behind their starters along the defensive line. At defensive end, Victor Evans comes in as a backup with plenty of experience. Evans has good size (6-3 243) and has played in 22 games over the past two seasons after redshirting in 2014. He has registered 30 tackles over that span. Charles Wiley enters 2017 listed as at second team defensive end. Wiley, who was a four star prospect in Ole Miss’s 2016 recruiting class, redshirted last season and has added nearly 20 pounds to his 6-2 frame.
At defensive tackle, the Rebels return Garrald McDowell (Jr.), Ross Donelly (Jr.), Herbert Moore (Sr.), Austrian Robinson (So.), and Josiah Coatney (So.). McDowell is undersized at 6-2, 264, but has a good first step and posted 16 tackles last season. Donelly received a considerable amount of playing time in 2015 after injuries to Isaac Gross and Nkemdiche, but saw the field less in 2016 in a crowded position group. The lone senior in the group of defensive tackles, Moore has had trouble staying healthy after tearing his ACL which led to him missing the entire 2015 season. While he may not receive the most reps, Moore is an emotional leader at this position. Robinson, who was recruited as a defensive end, is smaller but is a very quick player, very similar in physique and style of play to McDowell. Coatney was a JUCO transfer and redshirted last season.
Ole Miss signed three defensive ends in this past spring’s recruiting class. Markel Winters transfers in from Jones County Junior College and committed to the Rebels over Auburn and Mississippi State. Winters provides a solid frame at the position listed at 6-3, 252 and will factor into the defensive end rotation early this season. Ryder Anderson, a three star prospect, signed with Ole Miss over Arkansas. Listed at 6-6, 244, he has an excellent frame to build on. Four star recruit, Chester Graves, signed with the Rebels but did not qualify academically and will go the JUCO route.
Ole Miss signed one player at defensive tackle, three star Sincere David. David will play DT in Oxford but was also recruited as an offensive guard by some schools.
The Ole Miss defensive line is set up to be one of the better D-lines in the SEC this season. They have a star in Haynes with some talented, although inexperienced, players at defensive end. The defensive tackle position has an excellent combination of depth and experience. Speaks and Jones both have All-SEC potential at the position. While this position group does not lack talent at all, the other positions (mainly linebacker) need to improve in order for the defensive line to realize its full potential.