5 things that will define the Ole Miss defense in 2021
Perhaps the most significant storyline of this offseason is whether Ole Miss will improve on defense enough to win more than they did in 2020. Lane Kiffin and his staff generated momentum with a fun brand of football centered around an explosive offense in Year 1, now they’re tasked with replenishing the talent pool on a defense that has been among the worst in the FBS over the last half-decade.
Ole Miss’ defense was not at full strength in the Grove Bowl, but the spring still provided some clues. Let’s take a look at five things that will define this defense’s success in 2021.
1. Can the Rebels generate a pass rush?
As simplistic as it sounds, Ole Miss was unable to generate consistent pressure last season and that was the first of many issues that plagued the defense throughout the year. Because the Rebels couldn’t get to the quarterback, a young secondary was put in tough spots and a linebacking corps had added stress with regard to pass coverage and rushing responsibilities. Sam Williams, the most talented defensive player, returns and the Rebels will look for contributions from Tariqious Tisdale, Tavius Robinson, Demon Clowney, Cedric Johnson and others to up the team’s sack total (16) from a year ago.
DeSanto Rollins had a pair of sacks in the spring game at defensive tackle. How he, coupled with a trio of newcomers in Isaiah Iton, Jamond Gordon and Tywone Malone will develop will help solidify the interior of a defensive line unit that was among the worst in the conference last season. But where the Rebels find length and athleticism on the edge, outside of Williams, to maintain a consistent pass rush will go a long way in determining the team’s success.
2. Can the secondary make a leap?
It feels like Ole Miss has been young on the back end for 3 years. With nearly 30 defensive backs, all starters returning from 2020 and some depth to fill in behind it, do the Rebels final form a competitive secondary next fall? Jake Finley, Otis Reese and Jake Springer comprise a pretty solid safety group with Jon Haynes and Tylan Knight behind them. At corner, 2-year starter Keidron Smith is now no guarantee to be a 3-year starter this fall with Deane Leonard and Miles Battle emerging and Jalen Jordan looking like a legitimate starter as well, and that is all without mentioning DeAntre Prince returning to the program. If Ole Miss finally has depth there, this unit will make a drastic jump from being the worst in the SEC in 2020.
3. Do the newcomers help stop the run?
Ole Miss allowed an astounding 206 rushing yards per game last season. That was a distant last in the SEC — and 134 more yards than SEC-leader Georgia allowed.
We mentioned Iton, Malone and Gordon. That trio, along with K.D. Hill, Patrick Lucas and Sincere David will be tasked with forming a more formidable run defense than the porous one Ole Miss ran out there on a weekly basis last season. This is perhaps the biggest key to success for D.J. Durkin’s and Chris Partridge’s defense in Year 2. Ole Miss simply must be better against the run or the rest of group will suffer because of it.
4. Do the linebackers stay healthy?
Ole Miss will trot out a pretty strong duo in Lakia Henry and Jacquez Jones at linebacker for the season opener against Louisville, barring injury. Veteran MoMo Sanogo will see heavy snaps too, but what about behind them? Linebacker is a pretty unproven group in terms of depth. It will be paramount these 3 remain healthy throughout the year, otherwise, Ole Miss will be counting on Austin Keys, Mark Robinson and Chance Campbell to be significant contributors, which may not turn out be a bad thing, there is just not a lot of game snaps between those 3. The linebacking corps is an interesting blend of 3 veterans and 3 guys who have hardly dipped their toes into SEC football. Health is of paramount importance here.
5. Does more talent translate to a better scheme?
It’s unquestionable that Ole Miss will have more talent on defense than it did last September. Will that equate to the scheme having more success? Last year’s struggles were largely because of talent, but certainly not because of talent alone. Mike MacIntyre produced a competitive defense in 2019 under Matt Luke with similar or less talent to work with. Durkin and Partridge did not have the same success. With that said, MacIntyre and the current defensive tandem were hired to do much different jobs.
MacIntyre was tasked with putting a Band-aid on a nearly fatal wound.
Durkin and Partridge were hired to recruit nationally and replenish the talent. Was last year a case of implementing a scheme that will work with adequate pieces in place? That remains to be seen. One thing is certain: The results had better improve or this group will be at a crossroads come midseason.
MORE REBELS: 5 things that will define Ole Miss’ offense in 2021