Lane Kiffin has done several things that are worth applauding.

He walked into Oxford and provided stability to a locker room that was in flux after the firing of Matt Luke. Kiffin recruited his tail off and ended up with a 2020 class that could have been much worse considering the limited time he had. He kept up a fun, playful social media profile during a time when the internet is always ready to pounce at the first bad tweet (ask his new in-state rival coach Mike Leach about that). Kiffin rallied behind his players and spoke at a Black Lives Matter rally in Oxford, which he followed up by joining university administrators at the Mississippi state capitol to support changing the state’s flag.

To say that Kiffin handled his return to the Power 5 head coaching ranks well would be an understatement. So far, everything suggests that Kiffin and Ole Miss are in the right place to make this marriage work.

But I cannot understand the decision he made with his defensive coordinator hires of Chris Partridge and DJ Durkin. And for that reason, I can’t help but wonder if some not-so-ideal flashbacks to 2016-18 are on the way.

If you noticed, I said 2016-18, not 2016-19. Why? Well, as any Ole Miss fan will tell you, Mike MacIntyre’s 1 year as the team’s defensive coordinator was incredibly successful. He took a unit that hadn’t finished better than No. 100 in scoring the previous 3 years and finished No. 59. More impressively, he inherited the nation’s No. 115 run defense and lifted it to a No. 44 ranking.

MacIntyre, as we know, wasn’t retained by Kiffin. Instead, he took the defensive coordinator job at Memphis. That was big news for a program that went to a New Year’s 6 Bowl last year:

While I don’t know if those conversations happened, it’s worth noting that MacIntyre made $1.5 million as Ole Miss’ defensive coordinator last year (and he earned every penny of it). But in 2020, he’ll make $420,000 at Memphis, which is $200,000 less than the $625,000 annual salary that Partridge will earn at Ole Miss. If money was a snag, that doesn’t add up (unless MacIntyre wanted a 7-figure deal from Kiffin that wasn’t there for him).

With all due respect to Partridge, who has built a reputation as one of the better recruiters in the sport, he’s unproven as a college coordinator. Six years ago, Partridge was a high school coach at Paramus Catholic High School in New Jersey. That’s where 5-star recruits Jabrill Peppers and Rashan Gary went to high school. Both ended up at Michigan, as did Partridge. He spent the past 5 seasons working a variety of roles on Jim Harbaugh’s defensive staff, most recently as the special teams coordinator and linebackers coach.

Harbaugh’s first coordinator at Michigan, ironically enough, was Durkin. In 2015, Durkin coached the nation’s No. 6 defense, which led to him getting the head coaching gig at Maryland.

(I’ve already shared my piece on the flawed logic used to hire Durkin following the death of Jordan McNair and his firing for allowing a toxic culture at Maryland, so I won’t revisit all of my thoughts on that. I’ll just say that anyone pointing to the “he was hired because he’s an elite recruiter” thing needs to realize that his entire reputation as a recruiter was built before all of that went down, and in this cutthroat business, it’s fair to have serious questions how that’ll work against him.)

Let’s just look at the on-field stuff with Durkin because that’s really why it seems like Ole Miss is due for a defensive regression.

While he was certainly a part of some solid defenses from 2013-15, it’s also worth remembering that defensive-minded Will Muschamp was the Florida’s head coach for 2 of those years. And though Michigan did get a boost with Durkin on the sidelines in 2015, he inherited the nation’s No. 27 defense with 7 returning starters. Michigan also had a top-25 defense in the 4 years after Durkin left Ann Arbor.

This really comes back to my belief that an elite defensive mind should never have a unit rank No. 120 in scoring, which was exactly what Durkin had in his last full season on the sidelines at Maryland. His run defenses ranked No. 85 and No. 83.

The Maryland stuff is worth mentioning because whether Ole Miss fans want to accept it or not, the talent disparity in Oxford resembles the Terps more than what Durkin worked with at Florida and Michigan. Right now, Ole Miss’ uphill battle vs. the SEC West has shades of Maryland’s uphill battle with the Big Ten East when Durkin arrived.

One would tend to think that the position of Ole Miss defensive coordinator should require someone who has a proven ability to maximize talent because if we’re being honest, top-10 recruiting classes aren’t about to start becoming the norm at Ole Miss. Not legally, at least.

Speaking of Hugh Freeze, once upon a time, he had the nation’s top defense at Ole Miss in 2014. But eventually, his combination of defensive coordinators couldn’t make it work, and neither did Luke’s. What happened from 2016-18 was weekly frustration for Ole Miss fans:

  • No defense better than No. 100 in FBS
  • No run defense better than No. 115 in FBS
  • 39.1 points allowed per SEC game
  • 11 opponents hit 40 points
  • 14 opponents ran for 250 yards
  • 8 opponents ran for 300 yards

Only 6 total Power 5 teams allowed an average of 250 rushing yards per game in the past 4 seasons. None of those were Ole Miss, but those yearly totals from 2016-18 were 246.4, 245.3 and 220.8. It didn’t matter that the Rebels had offenses that ranked in the top 1/3 each of those 3 seasons. A 6-18 mark in SEC play was a direct result of that ineffective run defense.

You might tell yourself that even though the run defense was greatly improved, the 2019 team wasn’t any different because it had the same SEC winning percentage (.250) as those other 3 seasons. But look a little closer. From 2016-18, Ole Miss’ average margin of defeat in SEC play was -12.2, and it was actually -19 in 2018. In 2019, that number dropped to -4.4 … and that offense was only ranked No. 82 (Ole Miss had 5 losses by 1 score in 2019 and 6 from 2016-18).

See what I’m saying? It’s cliché, but it’s simple. Stopping the run puts you in a much better position to win football games. Shocking, I know.

I would have had legitimate concerns about Ole Miss’ ability to consistently tackle in space with this new staff under normal conditions. A pandemic-fueled shutdown of spring ball certainly didn’t boost my confidence that this Ole Miss defense, which finally turned things around last year, is going to be firing on all cylinders with this new staff.

We saw the year-to-year improvement once MacIntyre took over in 2019. That was with mostly the same defense that struggled in 2018. Players were in better position to make plays in space, there was more emphasis on hammering schemes home in walkthroughs and they actually prioritized pursuit drills in practice. Players bought in. Granted, they also had an entire offseason to work with MacIntyre.

We know that won’t be the case with the Durkin/Partridge combination, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll execute the 3 things that made MacIntyre’s defense successful. We know that even though Ole Miss returns it 3 starting defensive backs and its top 2 tacklers, Lakia Henry and Jacquez Jones, depth is a major question. We also know that Durkin is playing it close to the vest as it relates to scheme, and that he wants to be multiple.

But we don’t even know who will be calling the plays between Partridge and Durkin. We also don’t know how the latter is going to handle his opportunity after 2 years away from the college game and 5 years removed from leading a successful defense.

The good news is that Ole Miss is no longer dealing with scholarship limitations from NCAA sanctions that hovered over the program during the Luke era. From a depth standpoint, that should help a defense that doesn’t have much margin for error. That could prevent a frustrating trip down memory lane.

If Durkin and Partridge can instead take Ole Miss back to its 2019 ways, well, Kiffin’s move will make a lot more sense.