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Ole Miss’ defense should go for broke this season

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It’s not like the Landsharks have a bowl to play for. Go crazy.

Alabama v Mississippi Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The buzz around fall camp is that new Ole Miss defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff has put an emphasis on generating turnovers. While that’s a nice thought, we have no clue what that’s going to look like until September, and for now, it remains an abstract idea to everyone outside the practice facilities. Forcing offenses to cough up the ball isn’t simply something you decide to do; an informed thought process is required to pull it off.

I made the case earlier in the summer that Ole Miss may have the pieces to return to the bend-don’t-break blueprint from 2015 that stayed out of the way of a prolific offense. Preventing big plays, surviving drives with incremental gains, and pouncing on mistakes with timely disruption can work, but it’s predicated on having at least some depth.

As the depth chart begins to solidify, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the defense will be scarily thin. There are a few inspiring names that emerged from the mess of 2016, but the two-deep remains largely inexperienced and less than chock-full of former blue chips. The bend-don’t-break approach may be infeasible, but more importantly, it’s not as fun as being hyper-aggressive all the damn time.

This idea has worked before at other schools.

While it must be nice for the Nick Sabans of the world to be able to rely on conservatism most of the time, coaches with limited resources are forced to think outside the box. That’s how current Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz made a name for himself during stops at Mississippi State and Louisiana Tech. The Diaz brand is grounded in attacking on every down, stressing young quarterbacks to make rapid, critical decisions.

Over the past three years, his defenses have prioritized chaos over everything else, particularly in the front seven. His two-deep schemes have proven that aggressiveness doesn’t necessarily imply giving up more explosive plays on the back end, which is relief for an Ole Miss defense that ranked 109th in IsoPPP last season. The Rebels will have to set their sights lower than Miami’s 13th best defense of 2016, and will probably still get torched half the time, but the overall design can be somewhat similar.

Some coaches are never quite able to build a defense that separates itself from an up-tempo offensive identity, but a handful of teams have accepted that reality by putting an emphasis on havoc rate, knowing that they don’t have the pieces to excel from an efficiency standpoint. Examples range from Big 12 country to outside of the Power 5 at Boise State and Western Kentucky.

Can this style of play work at Ole Miss?

The Landsharks have long been known for emphasizing speed above all else, but there’s usually been a nice balance between a dominant front, a secondary willing to fly into the backfield, and a secure back end. Before 2016, Dave Wommack’s defenses were pretty solid at not giving up the big play despite maintaining that aggressive style.

With all the personnel concerns, there’s likely going to be more of a trade-off with trying to drop the kitchen sink on offenses this time around. We already saw the consequences of a thin defense in attack mode last season, as a good chunk of their shorter drives resulted in six points for the other team, rather than a takeaway.

Here’s how defensive possessions shook out over the last five seasons, just looking at touchdowns and turnovers by the length of the drive.

The 2017 defense shouldn’t have quite as many holes as the year prior, and they’ll have a better chance to swing at least some short possessions in their favor.

When you’re low on options, you may as well make the game entertaining. This team is going to be carried by the offense anyway, so a strategy based on getting them back on the field as quickly as possible isn’t all that terrible.

The short answer to whether McGriff can amp up an already aggressive identity is that we have no clue. There’s not some lever you can pull to generate more turnovers, and I’m fortunate enough to not have to answer the “how” to any of this. So much of defensive success is structural and predetermined, reliant on recruiting and player development, two components Ole Miss has struggled with on this side of the ball as of late.

There aren’t a ton of examples of this level of recklessness at bigger programs, because the implications of it backfiring could include a coach losing his job. Considering how this offseason has performed, that specific concern shouldn’t hold that much weight in the staff’s schematic decisions.

Ole Miss has already been characterized as the crazy guy in the bar fight going into 2017, so leaning into that image only makes sense. When everything is already on fire, there’s no point in not taking risks, especially for a unit that was never going to be great by conventional standards anyway. This season presents an opportunity to make fanbases with something actually at stake jealous, if only for a moment. 2017 is gonna be fun.