For all the pre-draft grumbling about his inconsistent motor, Robert Nkemdiche was a scheme-wrecking monster capable of upending an offense’s game plan with his mere presence on the field. Ole Miss (and most of the other schools in the country, for that matter) might never have another player with his raw physical ability.
Which admittedly casts suspicion on the suggestion that the Rebels’ defensive line could be even better four months after Big Rob’s first-round NFL Draft selection (particularly when you consider that Ole Miss also lost starting nose tackle Woodrow Hamilton). Last season’s front was, after all, pretty damn good with Nkemdiche anchored in the middle at defensive tackle: the Rebels ranked 17th in run defense S&P+, 14th in defensive rushing success rate and fifth in power success rate.
But the pieces are definitely in place for the 2016 unit to take a step forward.
The projected three-deep
Ole Miss is stacked on the interior
The Rebs played two games without Nkemdiche last season: the big fella was a late scratch against A&M the week after suffering a concussion in Memphis; two months and one highly publicized fall from a hotel window later, he was suspended for the Sugar Bowl. The defensive front was stellar in both wins, allowing just 2.1 yards per rush and racking up five sacks.
That was thanks in large part to the contributions of then-redshirt freshman Breeland Speaks, who started in place of Nkemdiche in both games and will become his full-time replacement at defensive tackle this season. The 310-pounder has the power and explosive first step to blow by interior lineman, but it’s his surprising lateral quickness and pursuit ability that could make him particularly important in shutting down running lanes.
That should pair well with D.J. Jones, whose late-season surge in 2015-16 has propelled him into the starting nose tackle spot. Despite limited playing time during his transition from the JUCO ranks, Jones grades out as the sixth best returning interior D-lineman in the country, according to Pro Football Focus. Named one of the strongest college football players in the country by NFL.com before he even took a snap last season, Jones should be a boulder in the center of the Rebel front.
The backups for each of those spots could likely start on most teams. Issac Gross, a senior who missed most of last season with a neck injury, has work himself all the way back and will get a lot of playing time rotating in with Jones at nose tackle. Coming behind Speaks will be five-star Benito Jones, who ranked as the sixth best defensive tackle prospect in the country and should see a good bit of the field as a true freshman.
Marquis Haynes is a year older
Which means he's really starting to focus in on his 401k.
Feel-good story of the year is Ole Miss' 42-year old defensive end Marquis Haynes. pic.twitter.com/rwZHfNI2Z1— Gray Hardison (@BellyoftheBeast) October 29, 2015
It also means another offseason of building muscle mass and honing technique for the star defensive end (who, at 23, actually is pretty old for a junior). Haynes, who switched his number to 10 as a motivational reminder of the sack total he piled up last season and is striving to surpass in 2016, has spent the last eight months working on his block shedding in order to be a more multifaceted, every-down defender.
"Almost all of his sacks have been off straight speed, and this last spring I really felt like was the first time he developed himself as a complete pass rusher," Ole Miss D-line coach Chris Kiffin told The Oxford Eagle. "That’s why I’m so excited to see him this fall, to build off him and what he can do."
That’s bad news for collegiate offensive lineman, who have collectively allowed Haynes to get to the QB 17.5 times during his first two seasons. 2016 will probably be the last time Haynes faces guys who aren’t paid to block him—CBS Sports projects him as a second rounder in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Even with Haynes sprinting around offensive tackles last season, however, the Rebs ranked 108th in passing-down sack rate. The defense could use another edge rusher to play opposite of Haynes in those situations, a role that will hopefully be filled by redshirt sophomore Victor Evans, who Freeze praised as having "a good camp."
Fadol Brown’s status is still up in the air
Freeze has repeatedly said the he thinks his D-line is one player short of having the ideal depth. That’s probably a reference to strong-side defensive end, where the Rebs don’t have a great option if Brown can’t overcome the pesky stress fracture that’s plagued him since November of last season. The 6-4, 273-pound, run-stuffing machine has yet to practice with the team since going under the knife in December and his availability for the season opener and beyond is still uncertain. That’s bad news for a defense set to face Dalvin Cook, Bo Scarbrough and Nick Chubb in September alone.
Channing Ward has graduated and career backup John Youngblood and sophomore Gerrald McDowell may lack the size and experience, respectively, to man the strong point of the run defense. That's left Freeze toying with the idea of moving Breeland Speaks outside.
Best case, worst case
It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Ole Miss doesn’t field one of the best defensive fronts in the SEC. At worst, Fadol Brown doesn’t make it onto the field at all in 2016 and another injury to one of the interior guys wrecks havoc on the rotation. Even still, the Rebs have the depth to field a solid front.
At best, a healthy Brown returns to anchor a deep, impenetrable rampart against the run, while Marquis Haynes takes the next step in his evolution as a pass rusher. If the Rebs can find an effective edge rusher opposite Haynes, Ole Miss will be an absolute nightmare on passing downs, which could in turn go a long way in covering up the lack of experience in the secondary.