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Achievable defensive improvements could go a long way for Ole Miss in 2017

A transformation in Wesley McGriff’s first year as DC isn’t likely, but subtle changes may be enough for this team to be competitive.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

As the 2017 season approaches, a number of substantive, non-NCAA, actual football-related questions loom over Ole Miss, one of which is where to set reasonable expectations for the defense. Over the course of three years, Dave Wommack’s squad went from 2nd to 23rd to 72nd in defensive S&P+, so it’s not surprising for fans to be anxiously awaiting any kind of improvement.

It’s not realistic to expect this unit to suddenly excel in terms of overall efficiency, and we probably won’t see a group similar to that elite 2014 defense in Oxford ever again. But the group that contributed to a Sugar Bowl win the following year wouldn’t be quite as difficult to duplicate. From 2015 to 2016, the biggest dropoffs for the defense were in giving up explosive plays (26th to 109th in IsoPPP) and allowing offenses to finish drives (19th to 108th in points allowed per scoring opportunity).

In other words, returning to even the mildest levels of competency in certain facets of the game would be a major turning point for this team, and a lot of the problems that need addressing are more a function of player personnel than anything else.

The better offenses on the schedule are likely going to rack up yards to a frustrating degree, and similar to last year, the Rebels won’t suddenly be great at generating many three-and-outs or quick takeaways. However, preventing big plays, along with tightening up late in drives, could make up for some of this squad’s deficiencies. Getting into the end zone becomes a much more daunting task when forced to put together long, mistake-free drives.

Achieving this kind of bend-don’t-break blueprint isn’t that simple, but having more to work with in terms of talent is a start.

More experience could help with wreaking havoc and protecting the end zone.

When opposing offenses prolonged drives in 2015, there remained a decent chance that the defense could kill their momentum by forcing a turnover or negative play. The following year, a touchdown became more likely than a scoreless outcome once they had been on the field for six plays. Here’s how defensive drives shook out over the last two years (move the slider to change the minimum number of plays).

While the 2015 Landsharks weren’t amazing from an efficiency standpoint, they did shine at causing enough disruption to prevent offenses from always converting yards to points, perhaps best summed up by their 11th best havoc rate. That figure went down to 99th after the departures of safeties Mike Hilton and Trae Elston, who combined to make up 25 percent of the team’s havoc plays.

Last year’s main agents of chaos, Marquis Haynes, Demarquis Gates, and Zedrick Woods, are all returning. On top of that, a handful of underclassmen, including Woods and Jaylon Jones, got thrown into the fire early in their careers, so it’s reasonable to expect something positive to come out of those snaps.

The linebackers will be better at stopping the run, because they can’t get worse.

Because of a thin linebacking corps that couldn’t stop plays from developing at the second level, offenses were able to rely on running to generate big gains an unusual amount, as 45 percent of the defense’s explosive plays allowed came on the ground (national average is 33 percent). Their 29 allowed runs in this category in 2016 was eighth worst among Power 5 teams, so reaching even just an average level of play when it comes to containing runs would be a dramatic improvement.

A stouter run defense would also make things tougher on opponents in terms of play-calling. In 2015, Dave Wommack’s group excelled at knocking offenses out of their original game plan, and teams ran the ball just 54 percent of the time on standard downs (116th nationally). As the defense plummeted from 17th in rushing S&P+ to 66th in 2016, offenses hardly shied away from running at the most obvious times with a standard down run rate of 66 percent (21st).

At a certain point, success is predicated more on having the bodies to compete than on coaching adjustments, and there isn’t a more obvious example of that surrounding this team than the linebacker position. While switching to a 4-3 scheme implies that the team’s worst position group from last season will play an even greater role in 2017, the depth chart out of spring practice indicates McGriff will have a much deeper well of options to draw from as part of bolstering the front seven. While some major question marks surround the depth of the defensive line, they’ll undoubtedly have more support behind them than last year.

Of course, any hope that these improvements could have a major impact on the team’s season as a whole is operating under the assumption that the Rebels will be awesome on the other side of the ball, which itself isn’t quite a sure thing. Still, the 2016 recruiting class on its own offers arguably enough offensive talent that the defense simply needs to occasionally make stops and not erase the production of Phil Longo’s group.

Provided that Shea Patterson can deliver behind a retooled offense, the defense’s ability to reach these attainable benchmarks may prove to be enough to win possibly more than five games.