Outside of the very rare Ndamukong Suh and Warren Sapp types of talents, defensive tackles are not going find themselves spending much time on highlight reels or dominating box scores. They are the unsexiest position of the unsexiest group of the unsexiest side of the football. Rare (and delightful) is the sight of a defensive tackle crashing up the middle to flatten a quarterback where he stands or rumble into the endzone after somehow finding the ball in his hands.
That's because their job isn't to wow and amaze; their job is to wreck shit. Whereas the offense is supposed to organize itself into some sort of well-timed machine made up of 11 very complex moving parts, the defense, led by the defensive line, is supposed to be the wrench in the works. All of the best laid plans of offensive coordinators, head coaches, and quarterbacks, can come crashing down if gaps are gobbled up, pockets are collapsed, and passing lanes are shut down by the outstretched arms of incensed giants. A good defensive point of attack at the line of scrimmage can be as satisfyingly destructive as taking a sledgehammer to a grandfather clock.
The Ole Miss Rebels defense, which posted the best scoring defense in all of college football last season, will be once again built on a violent, chaotic defensive line. In defensive coordinator Dave Wommack's 4-2-5 defense, the defensive line is an interesting mix of size and quickness. On the ends, a leaner, pass rush specialist contrasts with his counterpart, a bulkier end who aids in run support by clogging up space to give linebackers and defensive backs clear angles to the ball carrier. The middle of the line, which is the focus of today's position preview, features a nose tackle lined up on top of the center and a defensive tackle lined up over one of the two offensive guards. The nose tackle is generally the quicker of the two tackles, allowing him to get the quickest jump closest to the ball. The defensive tackle - or at least this defensive tackle - is there to command multiple blockers and, when breaking free, do violent things to people carrying the football.
Let's take a look at this unit and marvel in their destructive capacity, shall we?
The Two Deep
At defensive tackle, all-everything and former No. 1 overall high school recruit Robert Nkemdiche gets much of our respect and admiration. This is with good reason. Nkemdiche is 6'4", just under 300 pounds, remarkably quick, and as strong as a bull. As previously mentioned, his job is, more or less, to create chaos. He is there to disrupt offensive lines and force running backs and quarterbacks to do dumb things while holding the football. Even though he led a defense that the SEC in tackles-for-a-loss per game (7.6) last season, his presence is not always so easily accounted for on a box score.
Consider Cody Prewitt's pick six against Texas A&M last year. Who was bearing down on Kenny Hill, forcing him to throw the ball early and high? Robert Nkemdiche.
Who, despite not making many tackles, was the focal point in disrupting Georgia Tech's option offense in the 2013 Music City Bowl, forcing offensive linemen out of position and causing poorly timed pitches and handoffs? Robert Nkemdiche.
Who had to literally be triple-teamed by Vanderbilt to give the Commodores any semblance of a chance this past season against the Rebels? You guessed it:
This is the effect Robert Nkemdiche has: getting TRIPLE TEAMED while Prewitt runs free on the blitz pic.twitter.com/8RjZyl8aUs— Jeff Gray (@Jeff_GraySBN) September 10, 2014
Like a rodeo bull, Robert Nkemdiche isn't something that you subdue or even defeat. He's just something that you try to survive and hope that, once your time against him is up, he doesn't stomp your ass into the dirt.
Behind him is redshirt freshman Breeland Speaks. At 6'3" and 313 pounds, Speaks is an impressively built second year college player. He was impressive in spring drills of this year, showing an ability to swat passes at the line of scrimmage and pursue plays laterally and even vertically until the whistle blows. His size and football instincts make him an SEC-caliber defender, but his inexperience should temper any expectations those attributes may encourage.
Still though, just look at the guy, pictured to the right of Robert Nkemdiche (No. 5):
I just spent way too many words going on and on about how impressive Robert Nkemdiche looks, and then in steps some redshirt freshman who could pass off as his stunt double. The potential is there in Speaks, and we are hopeful that it is soon realized.
At nose tackle, the undersized Issac Gross will use his quick burst to be the first off of the line of scrimmage and, ideally, in the backfield. Gross, who has the look of a baroque composer in his Ole Miss bio photo, is and has always been a svelte 240 pounds, which is hardly big enough to play outside linebacker in the NFL, let alone nose tackle in the SEC. His knack for getting out of his stance and into the business of the opposing center with an almost inhuman quickness is why he's been able to hang on to his starting spot, even in front of the experienced (and massive, at 6'3", 313 pound) Woodrow Hamilton. Hamilton is, to his credit, more of a plugger, and can play at either tackle spot when needed. He'll add valuable depth, and might get starting nods against more physical teams like Auburn and Arkansas.
The Wild Card
D.J. Jones, the top junior college defensive lineman in the 2014 recruiting cycle, is coming in to replace the outgoing Lavon Hooks. Jones is generally regarded as one of the strongest - if not the absolute brute strongest - player on the Rebels' roster, and made an NFL.com list of the strongest players in all of college football. He will likely be used situationally at either of the tackle spots, where his strength and squatty mass (6'0", 324 pounds) will be used to gain leverage on opposing interior linemen.
The New Guys
Aside from the aforementioned Jones, the Landshark defensive tackle unit was joined by Ross Donelly and Austrian Robinson at the conclusion the 2015 recruiting cycle. Robinson, a New York native, was listed as a strongside defensive end by many of the 'crootin services, even though he has the size - 6'4", 292 pounds - and step to play defensive tackle if needed. The Rebels earned his signature over Miami and Maryland, among many others. Donelly is a Houston native who is listed at 6'1", 309 pounds and had offers from Vanderbilt, Stanford, Northwestern, and Texas Tech. We wager that both are likely to redshirt this year, which is nice.