In the SEC, either you have a freakish defensive line, or you lose. Roughly every other team in the conference does have a handful of gigantic athletes up front, so if you're an SEC team and you don't, you're at a huge disadvantage. Ole Miss is certainly moving more towards that type of line, but there's inexperience and a terrible lack of depth at all four positions, something which Ole Miss fans have been somewhat spoiled against with recent defensive lines featuring now-NFL paid Greg Hardy, Peria Jerry, and Jerrell Powe.
There's promise though, because this line is generally young and talented. The optimist in us is saying that perhaps these guys could become something good by the end of this season, if certainly not by next season.
Sophomore CJ Johnson had fans excited when he signed with Ole Miss over TSFWCDAO in February of 2011. But there was almost immediate disappointment when he didn't really work out as our linebacker of the future. After being moved from middle 'backer to defensive end, he began showing signs of life at that position despite being pretty small. Well, he's still not huge, but he has gained some mass in the offseason and learned more about how to play rush end. Johnson is allegedly the best pass rusher on the team (holding out hope that Channing Ward is better) and figures to play a huge role this year as an every down defensive end who will likely struggle a bit in shedding blocks against the run, but should excel when going after the quarterback especially in third and long situations.
Again, in spite of his being about 30 pounds undersized, true freshman Isaac Gross out of South Panola High School has stepped into the starting nose tackle job and not let up. It's remarkable to see, given that this defensive line didn't lose a single tackle from last year's unit. I know we weren't good there last year, but it's surprising that Gross would immediately be the best tackle on the team. I will say, his first step is absurd. He's certainly not there yet, but Gross could develop into another South Panola Tiger turned Ole Miss Rebel Peria Jerry if he can gain the necessary weight and display the mental toughness Jerry had during his last couple of years at Ole Miss.
Carlton Martin is the latest player to take the other starting DT job this Fall. I like Carlton a lot and think he could contribute a good bit his year. He's not flashy and won't be the best player on the line, but I would expect to see a reliable, albeit safe player at the position. On this team, that's really all we can ask for. Bryon Bennett, the other Madison Central star on the Rebel defensive line, should play a role similar to Martin's albeit likely to a lesser extent.
Gilbert Pena could also be a strong defensive tackle for the Rebels. He has always had the size; in fact, last season, he had too much of it and played slow and injured. His hand is fully healed, and he is about 30 pounds lighter this year than he was last year, giving him a quicker step and more control when fending off blockers. He will contribute probably 10-15 plays a game at nose tackle.
Uriah Grant is a bit of a wild card given his recovery from shoulder surgery. We'll wait and see with him.
Channing Ward is the wild card. Freeze has already mentioned using Ward on passing downs, but I would guess it will be tough to keep our biggest and fastest defensive end off the field very long. The once self proclaimed bowling ball filled with knives, EJ Epperson, has the other starting defensive end job locked down right now. I'm sure he tries hard, but it's not exactly encouraging that your second best defensive end heading into the Fall was a tight end before Freeze arrived.
Defensive end and Chucky Mullins award winner Jason Jones is a really nice guy. He does his homework and goes to church. He holds the doors open for ladies and says "yes sir" to his coaches. That's all I've got.
In summation, the Rebel defensive line is, at best, a work in progress. There's young talent, especially at defensive end, but there isn't enough experience or depth for this to be an SEC-quality defensive line just yet. Still, if they can play opportunistic football, then they can matter.