In 2012, only South Carolina earned more sacks in the SEC than the Ole Miss Rebels. Leading the way in the Rebels' collective 38 sack effort was defensive end CJ Johnson with 6.5. After him came a bevy of defensive tackles and linebackers with a few sacks here and there, with only three other ends registering sacks: Jason Jones with 3.5; Cameron Whigham with 1.5; and EJ Epperson with 1.0. So, in all, the Rebel ends contributed 12.5 total sacks and 13.0 tackles for a loss in an overall defensive effort which was, while not at all elite, far better than what we probably were expecting.
Gone are Jason Jones and EJ Epperson, but notable returners are CJ Johnson, Cameron Whigham, Channing Ward, and Carlos Thompson. CJ is undersized for the position, but he's dangerously quick, displays great football instincts, and uses his hands well to gain any sort of leverage on his blockers - who are routinely 100 pounds heavier than he is. He is most certainly the most crucial part of the Rebel pass rush, and if his shin has healed well from an offseason fracture and subsequent surgery, then he should be ready to perform at a level similar to that of 2012. Cameron Whigham is a guy who doesn't put on nearly as dangerous a pass rush as Johnson, but is good in run support and sure to make a play when the ball is coming his way. He, unlike Johnson (and presumably, Nkemdiche) hasn't shown a real ability to make a play out of thin air, but he will again be a valuable part of the defensive line.
Channing Ward and Carlos Thompson are guys who have yet to really live up to their hype. Perhaps it's unreasonable to judge Ward so early in his career, as he's just a true sophomore, and Thompson has been seemingly on the threshold of becoming an SEC-ready defender for a couple of years. Both were high school all-Americans, so maybe our expectations have been tampered with a bit and made unfair for these two. Either way, here's to hoping that Ward or Thompson can become a valuable part of the end rotation this fall, because even if they only contribute situationally their depth is much needed.
The Incoming Class
If you're going to only sign one defensive end, it's helpful to make that defensive end the best high school football player in these here United States. Robert Nkemdiche is 6'5", 290 pounds, quick enough to run some inhuman time in the 40 yard dash for his size, and only 18 years old. He is already listed as a starter against Vanderbilt opposite of CJ Johnson, and should make a difference up front right away.
But remember y'all, even Jadeveon Clowney didn't have double-digit sacks in his first season at South Carolina. Nkemdiche is bound to make some freshmen mistakes, get bottled up by talented offensive tackles, and look a little underwhelming at times. It happens. Don't be unreasonable and expect him to be the football equivalent of The Incredible Hulk. He's a good defensive lineman who has the potential to be an elite one. Hopefully we'll see some of that potential this year.