Better or worse? Previewing Ole Miss' defense in 2021
Editor’s note: SDS’ annual preview of every SEC defense continues with Ole Miss. Coming Saturday: Texas A&M.
Ole Miss had the worst defense in the SEC last season. The reasons were multiple and destructive. The Rebels struggled to pressure the quarterback and stop running games. That led to them failing to get off the field, allowing nearly 40 points per contest and putting immense stress on the offense to keep pace. Ole Miss signed a defensive-heavy recruiting class that ended up ranked in the top 20, and multiple signees likely will make an immediate impact this fall.
Let’s take an early look at the 2021 defense and see how it stacks up to the Rebels’ results in 2020.
Bottom line: It has to be better, but will it? And where will it improve?
Pressuring the QB: Better
Ole Miss ranked 10th in the SEC in sacks last year, a number that is likely slightly better than how it actually consistently rushed the passer in 2020.
The Rebels struggled in that area, which often put a young secondary in tough spots and led to the team allowing the 2nd-most passing yards per game in the SEC (312.1). Sam Williams returns and will be the Ole Miss’ most dynamic playmaker on the edge with senior Tariqious Tisdale lined up on the other side. They should form a pretty formidable edge combination that will ideally have a little more depth than last season. Coaches like Tavius Robinson’s development, and Brandon Mack got a lot of valuable snaps last season.
Ole Miss won’t be dynamic rushing the passer, but that’s not new. Only once in the past 8 seasons have they totaled more than 30 sacks (33 in 2019), but the experience and depth are in place for the Rebels to be better in this area than they were in 2020.
Pass defense: Better
Noticing a theme here? Ole Miss addressed this issue in its 2021 signing class and now has 26 defensive backs on the roster. M.J. Daniels, Elijah Sabbatini and Tysheem Johnson will all be in the mix for immediate playing time, and Deantre Prince is back after spending a year in junior college. In SEC games only, Ole Miss gave up a league-high 324 yards per game passing and intercepted the ball just 6 times. With veteran Keidron Smith returning, A.J. Finley being a year more experience and Otis Reese being available for a full season, the Rebels should be much improved in this area and have the potential to build a little bit of depth too.
The secondary will be the most improved unit and has a chance to become a strength rather than a weakness. How a couple of position battles at safety and one of the corner slots shake out will be interesting to monitor in fall camp, but the Rebels have more options from a personnel standpoint than they have had in some time in the secondary.
Run defense: Better
As much as I hate to go better across the board here, it would be hard for Ole Miss to be much worse in most of these categories. The Rebels allowed a league-high 211 yards per game rushing last season. Opponents averaged over 5 yards per rush.
Three teams topped 300 yards, including Kentucky, which went off for 408.
The Rebels were weak on the interior and the linebacking corps wasn’t good enough to overcome it. Ole Miss added a pair of JUCO defensive tackles in Jamond Gordon and Isaiah Iton who will essentially be plug-and-play guys purely out of necessity. The Rebels’ crown jewel of the 2021 signing class is 4-star defensive tackle and 2-sport phenom Tywone Malone, who will surely see the field early.
The linebacking corps lost Jacquez Jones to transfer last month. That was a bit of a head scratcher considering Jones had emerged as a vocal leader, but it also might be a sign that the Rebels are building depth and Jones not wanting his snap count to diminish. Maryland transfer Chance Campbell will make an immediate impact and the Rebels get MoMo Sanogo back for another season.
This team has the pieces in place to be much better against the run than they were in 2020, and for the sake of this exercise, the odds of them being better are good simply due to how poor they were last season. How the 2 JUCO tackles pan out will go a long way in shoring up the interior, but odds are, the run defense will be as big of an issue this fall.
Special teams: Even
Mac Brown returns for another season. Brown was one of the better punters in college football, and the team’s return battery on kickoff and punts should look roughly the same. Brown is a luxury for Ole Miss and the Rebels should feel pretty good about what they have from a special teams standpoint.
Overall: Much better
If Ole Miss makes a leap in Year 2 under Lane Kiffin, it will because of this defense.
D.J. Durkin and Chris Partridge have made strides in replenishing the talent pool and addressed some needs in this recruiting class. Again, the bar is low because of how the defense played in 2020, but the pieces are in place for the Rebels to be much improved defensively, which will lead to another win or two down the stretch of the 2021 season.