Replacing Robert Nkemdiche isn't so much about statistical production (he's never put up much in the way of numbers) as it is about impact. No one man can stop a determined Nkemdiche, which means offenses have to reroute blockers his way and generally construct their entire gameplan around him. Because of that whole smoking weed and falling out of a window thing, that's not something Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich will have to worry about in the Sugar Bowl.
But for as uniquely talented as Nkemdiche is, the Rebels' depth at defensive tackle leaves them in pretty good shape. In Nkemdiche's one previous absence this season, redshirt freshman Breeland Speaks (who defensive coordinator Dave Wommack has confirmed will start in New Orleans) helped limit Texas A&M to three points and 192 offensive yards (just 58 of which came on the ground). That bodes well against an Okie State bunch that runs a similar spread system. In fact, when asked to compare the Pokes' offense to an SEC unit, Hugh Freeze picked A&M.
The good news for Ole Miss is that it won't have to worry about Oklahoma State pounding them up the middle: the Cowboys rank 103rd in rushing success rate and average just 3.27 yards per carry against Power 5 opponents. The bad news is that a short-handed defensive tackle rotation will be running wind-sprints against an uptempo spread attack that's top-10 nationally in passing yards per game.
Who will play where?
Ole Miss deploys a 4-2-5 base defense with two interior D-lineman on the field, but there is a difference between the two tackle positions. You have the nose tackle, who lines up directly over the center and is tasked with eating up space and blockers, and you have the defensive tackle, who lines up at the center-guard gap and tries to shoot his way into the backfield. Speaks will start in place of Nkemdiche at the defensive tackle spot, which means Woodrow Hamilton will make his typical start at nose tackle and D.J. Jones will cycle in at both positions.
Breeland Speaks is a more than adequate replacement.
The former four-star was the lone defensive bright spot in the Memphis loss after Nkemdiche went down with a concussion and was a force as a starter the next week against A&M. While the Rebels' defensive performance against Kevin Sumlin's bunch had a lot to do with strong play from the secondary and a terrible outing by Kyle Allen (12-of-34 with a pick), Speaks' play in the middle certainly contributed.
For someone 6'3, 313, Speaks has incredible lateral range which, just like it was against A&M, will be key against Oklahoma State's spread attack.
As disruptive as Speaks can be, however, he still doesn't force double teams the way Nkemdiche did. The Aggies left him singled up more often than not, freeing up the center to release to the next level on run plays or allowing a guard to slide out and help with a defensive end.
Still, Speaks can be a problem if you leave him one-on-one. He misses the tackle here, but watch how quickly he blows by the center trying to fill for the pulling guard.
D.J. Jones proved himself in Starkville.
Rated as one of the top JUCO players in the country when he showed up last January, Jones was having a relatively quiet first season before he blew the hell up in the Egg Bowl. He set up camp in State's backfield, notching a sack, a tackle for loss and forcing Dak out of the pocket on his first-quarter pick-six.
Given how well Jones rushed the passer in Starkville and how often Oklahoma State throws the ball, I'd expect him to see plenty of the field in New Orleans.
But lack of depth could be trouble against OK State's offense.
As I said before, Speaks starts at defensive tackle, Hamilton starts at nose tackle and Jones cycles between them, leaving Ole Miss with just a three-man rotation between the two positions. Remember that Issac Gross and Herbert Moore went down with season-ending injuries months ago. As weird as this is to say about a top-five NFL Draft talent, the biggest impact of Nkemdiche's absence is that there's one less warm body to rotate onto the D-line.
Fadol Brown's foot surgery means the Rebs are also down a starting defensive end (Channing Ward will start in his place and Wommack said to expect C.J. Johnson to slide down more than usual). All told, Ole Miss heads to New Orleans missing four key D-lineman.
Which means depth could be a big problem against Oklahoma State's fast-paced offense. The Cowboys average 77.8 plays per game this season (26th in the country) and they've averaged 81 in their last three outings. If that former average holds true (and it could be even higher considering Hugh Freeze's own uptempo offense), Hamilton, Speaks and Jones will need to play roughly 54 snaps apiece on New Year's Day. That's a lot of running for a trio that weighs nearly half a ton.