Grading Ole Miss' defense after 2 games reveals some good, some room for improvement
Ole Miss is 2-0 after a 54-17 shellacking of Austin Peay on Saturday night. The Rebels will face perhaps their toughest test yet this weekend with Tulane coming to Oxford. The Green Wave took Oklahoma down to the wire in Norman in Week 1 and racked up 294 yards on the ground last week in a win over Morgan State.
That rushing total could give the Rebels a reason to pause.
If there is one overarching weakness on this defense, it’s the depth on the defensive line, particularly on the interior.
Ole Miss rotated plenty against Austin Peay because it could afford to. We saw true freshman Tywone Malone for the first time, and JUCO transfers Isaiah Iton and Jamond Gordon got some extended run at the end and tackle slots.
Ole Miss switched to a 3-2-6 look in the offseason and the results have been favorable through 2 games. The idea behind the move was to utilize Ole Miss’ greatest strength — the newfound secondary depth — to supplement having to use another linebacker or defensive lineman.
But even with only 3 down linemen, Ole Miss has to prove it can stop quality running games. As such, the interior defensive line will be the greatest determining factor in whether they can accomplish that.
Quentin Bivens had a nice season-opening game in the win over Louisville. The Cardinals rushed for just 155 yards on 39 carries, but some of that was due to the secondary being good in run-stopping responsibility on the edges. Beyond Bivens, there’s KD Hill and then a lot of unproven players, which makes the Rebels’ quest to find defensive line depth all the more important as they welcome Tulane and then it hit the teeth of their SEC schedule after that.
Malone, who was hampered by an injury throughout parts of camp, had 3 tackles and a sack in just 9 snaps in Week 2. A small sample size, yes, but an encouraging first sign.
Demon Clowney — yes, Jadeveon’s cousin — is another young defensive end who played a lot Saturday and someone who the coaching staff hopes can contribute.
They understand the numbers and the need.
And then there’s Gordon and Iton. Gordon did not play against Louisville and had 2 tackles in Saturday’s win. Iton has played more than Gordon; coaches appear to trust Iton more right now. He has 5 tackles through 2 games. But the bottom line is this: This staff did not recruit the 2 JUCO products to sit and this defensive line will be remarkably better if both are productive contributors going forward.
DJ Durkin and Chris Partridge have gotten creative in trying to formulate depth up front. Jalen Cunningham moved from offensive line to defensive line toward the end of camp. Cunningham was a defensive lineman in high school. He played a handful of snaps in Saturday’s win.
“That’s a hard move obviously to make to go all of a sudden to nose tackle. He did it in high school, so that’s a work in progress,” Kiffin said. “He does obviously give us a really big body there. For the front, we’ve been playing a lot of odd front, zero technique. When you have a really big nose, that’s a difficult defense, so hopefully, he can continue to develop.”
Tavius Robinson came on strong toward the end of last season but has been sidelined with an undisclosed injury. Ole Miss could greatly benefit from his return.
Where the Rebels should feel good regarding the line is at defensive end, particularly in pass-rushing situations. Sam Williams forced 2 fumbles against Austin Peay, including a strip sack that he scooped and scored. Williams is the best athlete on this defense and the coaching staff has challenged him to become more consistent. He’s answered the call so far. He and Cedric Williams have formed a formidable pass-rushing duo.
Kiffin says even his o-line can’t block him in practice.
“Look, in the system we play, if your two ends are not good rushers, then it isn’t a very good system,” Kiffin told reporters. “We only have three guys rushing and they double the nose every time. Luckily, we have Sam and Cedric that give people problems.”
Ole Miss has looked better collectively on defense than they did at any point in 2020, but there are still areas of concern. If the Rebels can generate some depth on the d-line, they could be in line for a season that exceeds all preseason expectations.