Better or worse? Previewing Ole Miss’ defense in 2022
Lane Kiffin was a quarterback when he played at Fresno State way back when.
As a head coach, he is most commonly identified by his consistently highly productive offenses.
But his 2021 Ole Miss team, which set a school record for regular-season wins (10) and went to Sugar Bowl, did a lot of good stuff on defense as well.
If the 2022 Rebels are going to contend in the SEC West, they will need to continue doing a lot of good stuff on defense.
Ole Miss had one of the most improved scoring defenses in the country last season, allowing 24.7 points per game a year after giving up a league-worst 38.3.
The Rebels’ rankings in yards weren’t the best indicator of the improvement or the defense’s overall success.
Ole Miss was really good at taking the ball away and holding down opponents’ point totals.
Those factors generally go hand in hand, and points allowed is the defensive stat most closely associated with wins and losses.
The most telling stat regarding last year’s defense was that its reduction of 13.6 points per game compared to 2020 was the 2nd-biggest improvement (behind Michigan) among Power 5 teams.
A similar degree of improvement isn’t possible in 2022, but staying in the neighborhood of 3 TDs per game is.
There isn’t much room for improvement in terms of taking the football away, either, after the Rebels tied for 2nd in the SEC with 21 turnovers.
But there is room for improvement – lots of it, in fact – when it comes to passing yards allowed (230.0 per game, 8th in the SEC), total yards allowed (420.4, 11th) and rushing yards allowed (190.4, 12th).
If Ole Miss is going to be better on defense overall in 2022, it’s going to have to be better at limiting yards allowed on a down-in and down-out basis.
If the Rebels are going to do that they will have to successfully negotiate a lot of changes.
Ole Miss had to replace 6 starters on defense and 8 of its top 12 tacklers, most notably end Sam Williams and linebackers Chance Campbell and Mark Robinson.
But Kiffin made good use of the transfer portal in trying to field a front 7 that is comparable to a secondary that figures to be the strongest area of the defense.
The Rebels also are going through a transition with the defensive coaching staff. Chris Partridge returns as a co-defensive coordinator, but Maurice Crum arrives to replace DJ Durkin, who was the other co-defensive coordinator before leaving for Texas A&M.
Here’s an evaluation of whether the Rebels’ defense will be better in 2022 than it was in 2021:
Pressuring the QB: Worse
Ole Miss registered 40 sacks last season, 3rd-most in the SEC. The pass rush was perhaps the defense’s biggest strength. It will be a challenge to be as good, let alone better.
Williams was 2nd in the SEC with 13 sacks last season and it’s unlikely that one Rebel will match that productivity, though Cedric Johnson returns after finishing 2nd on the team with 6.5 sacks last season.
The key is whether a group effort can surpass Ole Miss’ total of 40 sacks. That’s not going to happen – but the Rebels won’t miss by much.
Jared Ivey (Georgia Tech) and JJ Pegues (Auburn) came through the transfer portal to join KD Hill, Tavius Robinson, Demon Clowney and Jakivuan Brown as well as Brandon Mack, who missed all of last season due to injury, on the defensive line.
The pass rush, like the defense as a whole, will have talent and depth. But it won’t have a special playmaker and will have to endure some growing pains early in the season.
Run defense: Worse
Ole Miss has a lot of new faces in the linebacker room, including Crum, who is in charge of that position group.
The Rebels lost 5 contributors from last season and return just 2 experienced linebackers. The veterans are Austin Keys and Ashanti Cistrunk and the group should be bolstered by the arrival of transfer and Troy Brown, a 3-time All-MAC player at Central Michigan who made 215 total tackles in 41 career games for the Chippewas.
Brown is stepping up in class as he enters the SEC and he’ll have to perform for Ole Miss as he did for CMU if the run defense is going to improve. That’s a lot to ask.
Additionally the unit lacks experienced depth.
Pass defense: Better
The pass defense benefited from the strong pass rush last season. The tone for the pass defense this season will be set by the back end.
The Rebels will still be good enough at pressuring the quarterback to complement the secondary and produce an improved pass defense.
The secondary features much more experience than the linebackers with 4 returning starters – Otis Reese, AJ Finley, Tysheem Johnson and Deantre Prince. Finley and Reese are the defense’s top returning tacklers, which should help the inexperienced linebackers.
Also returning to the secondary is Miles Battle, while transfers Isheem Young (Iowa State) and Ladarius Tennison (Auburn) arrive.
The depth in the secondary and the lack of experienced depth on the defense could lead to an expanded use of 5- and 6-DB alignments.
Special teams: Better
The Rebels have a new special teams coordinator and a new punter.
Marty Biagi came from Purdue to become Kiffin’s 3rd coordinator in as many seasons after Coleman Hutzler went to Alabama.
Mac Brown was Ole Miss’ punter for the past 4 seasons and the Rebels ranked 8th in the SEC in net punting (39.9) last season.
The new punter is strong-legged 6-5 Australian Fraser Masin.
Overall: Slightly better
The Rebels’ success at taking the ball away last season helped them mitigate their mediocrity in surrendering yardage. It will be difficult for them to match last season’s takeaway ability with so many changes.
But Ole Miss will allow fewer yards and take the ball away nearly as frequently and that will lead to a slight reduction in points allowed.