Last Friday, Ole Miss defensive end Fadol Brown sent this out on his Instagram.
That footage of him mowing down practice dummies is significant because up until two days prior, he’d been waddling around in a walking boot. Brown, who took part in individual drills on Tuesday but was held out of the team portion, has taken a surprisingly long time to recover from a stress fracture that sidelined him for two of the final three games of 2015-16 and required surgery back in December.
Getting him back healthy could be the deciding factor in slowing down Dalvin Cook and Florida State’s run-heavy attack in the season opener.
As the projected starter at strong-side defensive end, Brown is one of, if not the, most important run-stoppers.
The strong side of an offense is generally the side that deploys the most receivers—in a pro-style scheme like Florida State’s, that typically means the side on which the tight end lines up. It’s also the side the offense is most likely to run the ball to, since that’s where the most blockers are.*
The strong-side DE, therefore, needs to be a large, powerful defender capable of holding his ground at the point of attack. Specifically, he’s tasked with playing the C gap, the space outside of the offensive tackle (and inside of the tight end, if there is one). If the strong-side end gets pushed upfield or walled off inside, the offense can attack the edges at will.
*FSU does like to mix in a lot counters, which means Marquis Haynes will play an important role in maintaining weak-side discipline.
Holding the edge is particularly important against Florida State.
There is no more dangerous open-space runner in the country than Cook, who led the nation last season in runs of at least 20 yards and averaged 3.3 more highlight yards per opportunity than the next-best Power 5 back, Leonard Fournette. The junior’s blinding speed and nitrous-level acceleration is deadly if he can outflank a defense, while his tightrope balance and deceptive power makes the 213-pounder a difficult tackle for perimeter defenders.
Let this dude turn the corner and you have trouble.
The Rebels will have better luck with Cook if they can keep him inside.
Don’t get it twisted: Cook can do damage between the tackles. His vision and burst make him a threat to shoot through interior gaps and blow by linebackers before they know what hit them. But the Ole Miss defense will be at its sturdiest up the middle, where D.J. Jones, Breeland Speaks, Issac Gross and five-star freshman Benito Jones form the sturdiest interior the Noles will face all season. Ole Miss wants to force Cook to earn his yards inside against that front.
Here’s SB Nation’s Ian Boyd on the tactics used last season by Boston College and Houston, which limited Cook to a combined 87 yards on 33 carries.
The Eagles and Cougars bottled up Cook by aggressively tending the edges and forcing the Noles to do their damage between the tackles. That’s what Ole Miss needs to do.
Cook is a nifty runner between the tackles, but he does his best work winning the edge. The FSU line often isn’t great at driving sturdy fronts off the ball. That’s how an offensive line opens creases, and it’s not the Noles’ strength.
Boston College followed a similar plan, with all of its blitzes and defenses designed to send numbers aggressively to the edge so that Cook would have nowhere to run but the middle of the field, where Ole Miss will be a bit bigger up front.
Last season, FSU ball carriers as a whole were stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage on 23.1 percent of their attempts (worse than 106 other FBS teams). The Rebels’ defense, meanwhile, stopped opposing ball carriers at or behind the line of scrimmage on 22.5 percent of attempts, ranking them among the nation’s top 35. The takeaway? Bottle Cook up inside and the defense stands a chance at stopping him before he gets going. Leave open escape routes to bounce plays outside and he’ll run wild.
Which brings us back to Brown, who will be key in holding the edge.
The Rebels can only stack so many linebackers and DBs on the perimeter—at some point, they’ll need the defensive ends to win some one-on-one matchups in order to keep Cook contained. Brown, a 6-4, 273-pounder who owns the second-highest power clean on the team, is the guy you want anchoring the strong point of your front.
Yes, Ole Miss managed to clamp down on Leonard Fournette with Brown sidelined last season, but the 230-pound LSU star doesn’t have the same level of escapability as the 210-pound Cook.
The Rebs also had since-departed Channing Ward to rotate in with John Youngblood at the strong-side end spot. This season, Youngblood and inexperienced sophomore Gerrald McDowell are the only D-ends other than Brown who weigh more than 250 pounds (and they’re listed at just 255 and 261, respectively).
Hugh Freeze may have a trick up his sleeve though: during a media-accessible practice session on Tuesday, reporters noted that Speaks, a 310-pound sophomore slated to start at defensive tackle, was working with the first team at strong-side DE. That move is made possible by the depth on the interior D-line: the Rebs can plug Speaks’ customary spot with Benito Jones or slide D.J. Jones over from nose tackle (D.J.’s spot would then be filled by Gross).
Of course, playing a sophomore defensive tackle out of position is less than ideal, particularly when it comes to generating a pass rush. That Freeze is toying with the idea—even if it’s nothing more than a training camp experiment—underscores the critical role that the strong-side end will play in anchoring the defensive front in Orlando.