Last season, Ole Miss players and fans got their first high-stakes look at the Landshark defense without the services of one Robert Nkemdiche, who was suspended for the Sugar Bowl following a dangerous fall from an Atlanta hotel window. At the time, the question of who and how to replace Nkemdiche in New Orleans weighed heavily on people's minds, with Breeland Speaks and D.J. Jones stepping up as presumptive stop-gaps in Big Rob's absence.
Now that the 2016 season is more and more becoming a reality, so does the chess match of depth charts, X's and O's attend the personnel turnover in defensive coordinator Dave Wommack's shop. Here's Red Cup Rebellion editor Jeff Gray on the basic problem of filling in Nkemdiche's spot within the scheme:
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.
Nkemdiche lined up at the more versatile defensive tackle spot, what with his other-worldly athleticism and command of double and sometimes triple team blocking scenarios. So the question for Wommack now becomes: who can attack the center-guard gap and who can go over the nose in a full time capacity this season?
Meet D.J. Jones, a very large man indeed.
2015 was Jones' first year in Oxford, having joined Ole Miss after establishing himself as the No. 1 JUCO defensive tackle in the nation the year before. At 6'0, 324 lbs., he doesn't carry Nkemdiche's more angular frame, but he can move that tonnage through scrums with the best of them. Here he is showing out on a couple plays in last season's Egg Bowl, in one flushing Dak Prescott out of the pocket despite a very obvious hold to help force Dak's first pick-six of the night.
Jones ranked 10th on the team last year in solo tackles with 23, and sixth in tackles for loss with 5.5. With Woodrow Hamilton and Nkemdiche no longer rostered, Jones will almost certainly jump up to a starting position. Indeed, he consistently was taking first-team snaps throughout spring workouts, and given his beefiness, the majority of his work will probably come from the nose tackle position.
Wait, I've heard of this guy before, right?
Indeed you have. Pro Football Focus recently named him the best player on Ole Miss' roster and the No. 51 ranked player in the country. Here's PFF's endorsement:
At six-feet tall, Jones often wins the leverage advantage at the line of scrimmage and he combines that with good athleticism for a 324-pounder. After transferring from junior college, he graded at +32.6 overall on 514 snaps in his college debut last season, good for 27th in the nation among interior defensive linemen and sixth among those returning in 2016. Jones was strong against the run at +21.5 and he provided four sacks, four QB hits, and 18 hurries on his 310 pass rushes.
If that reads rather surprising to you, that's because it is, and rightfully so. With just 514 total snaps last year, Jones was a standout player with limited playing time. After a full offseason to grow mentally and physically, the sixth-best returning interior lineman could make life a living hell for opposing centers in 2016.
Is this just a ploy to re-watch Sugar Bowl highlights?
Yeah, it is. During the Cowboys' second drive of the game -- which fizzled out for a field goal -- Jones came up big to stone a run inside, helping squash a fairly well moving Cowboy threat in the red zone.
Let's check in on the big guy after that very important stop.
Later, on Oklahoma State's third drive of the game, Jones first helped collapse the pocket, get his blocker all up in the quarterback's space, and force a dangerous throw downfield. Here he lined up over the right tackle.
Two plays after that, he dropped the Cowboys' passer for his second sack of the season, ending their drive right then and there. Note that he lines up as the true nose tackle here.
Hold up -- was that a three man front there?
After an Oklahoma State punt and riding the momentum of that defensive stand, Ole Miss would proceed to jet-stream down the field for their first of six touchdowns on the night.
So, with some hopefully well-founded preseason hype, and with a strong showing in a high stress situation filling in for a Rebel legend, and with a full offseason of focused work, 2016 could be a breakout year for Jones, who may well find himself anchoring the Landsharks' inside pass rush. He's shown the athleticism when given the chance, and now he just needs to prove it's sustainable.