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Ole Miss’ secondary returns a lot of experience in 2018. Will it translate to production?

If the defense is going to get better anytime soon, it starts with the back line.

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Mississippi Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

When holding out hope for any kind of improvement from Ole Miss’ defense in 2018, the first argument to make is an admittedly lazy one: it can’t get much worse, having finished 113th in defensive S&P+ last season.

There are actual football reasons for optimism, though, including the fact that Ole Miss will have a lot of experience in its secondary. If looking at returning production tells you anything, it’s that continuity in the secondary is key. The Rebels should benefit from a lot of that in 2018, as the secondary returns 88 percent of last year’s passes defensed and 79 percent of their tackles.

From Zedrick Woods to Jaylon Jones, we’ve seen different pieces along the back line have their own isolated moments over the past few years. There’s reason to believe it’s about time for those snaps to turn into something of an overarching identity.

Inexperience in the secondary is one reason the D has been so bad recently.

Ole Miss’ defensive decline began in 2016. It’s no coincidence that veteran safeties Mike Hilton and Trae Elston, who combined for more than a fourth of the team’s havoc plays their senior years, had just graduated. That 2015 secondary finished first nationally in havoc rate, stirring shit up on 10 percent of their snaps. The next year, that figure dropped to 6.2 percent (66th), then 5.3 in 2017 (106th).

Here’s how production in the Ole Miss secondary fell off after 2015.

Defensive back havoc plays

Year Tackles for Loss Passes Defensed
Year Tackles for Loss Passes Defensed
2015 32 66
2016 19.5 30
2017 11.5 33

Ole Miss has recruited talented defensive backs over the last couple of cycles, but lack of experience—particularly among hybrid defensive backs who can blitz, patrol the flats, and cause general havoc—has been felt everywhere.

Here’s the upshot: this secondary should have the experience to turn things around.

The most notable returner is senior cornerback Ken Webster, who’s slowly worked his way back from a devastating knee injury suffered in the first game of the 2016 season. He hasn’t been the same the last two years, but it sounds as if he’s back to his old self. He’ll be joined on the other side by 2016 Freshman All-American Jaylon Jones, who’s had his troubles in pass coverage but has the top end speed to hang with just about anyone in the country on an island.

Junior Myles Hartsfield, another 2016 Freshman All-American, and Senior Javien Hamilton will factor into the corner rotation as well, especially with D.D. Bowie transferring to Northeast Mississippi Community College to play receiver.

At safety it’ll be the usual suspects: seniors Zedrick Woods and Chucky Mullins Award recipient C.J. Moore. Woods was fourth on the team in tackles a year ago and has really settled in at the strong safety spot. Moore is coming off a career-year where he had 51 tackles and three interceptions, good enough for tops on the team. Behind the two returning starters are a pair of talented, long youngsters in Kam White and C.J. Miller, both of whom should get a lot of playing time due to their athleticism and length.

Improvement starts on passing downs.

If we’re setting the bar low, the least we could expect from a veteran group of defensive backs is that they avoid disaster in obvious passing scenarios.

Last year’s secondary was actually decent at not allowing explosive plays in those situations, but a lot of that is thanks to a defensive line that propelled the Rebels to third nationally in passing-downs sack rate. When the big fellas didn’t catch the quarterback, though, the defense allowed a first down through the air 39 percent of the time—by far the worst figure in the SEC. With last year’s sack leaders Breeland Speaks and Marquis Haynes off to the NFL, the defensive backs will have to pick up the slack.

Of course, finding success in passing-down situations begins with actually forcing teams into passing downs. In 2017, Ole Miss’ opponents faced passing downs on just 27 percent of their offensive snaps—the worst rate among SEC defenses. Generating more negative plays on first and second down would be one way to fix that.

We’ve been here before, you’re probably saying.

An understandable retort to any kind of hope for the secondary is that we’ve been here before. The secondary probably should have gotten better for a lot of the same reasons last season, but still hovered around mediocrity. The convenient part about predicting some advancement from a group that has nowhere to go but up is that you need only the slightest improvement to be right.

To expect a sudden resurgence from McGriff’s group in terms of play-by-play efficiency may be a bit naive, but some occasional big plays and timely turnovers can go a long way in setting the field up for what should be another potent Rebel offense. The benefit of being paired with Phil Longo’s weapons is that any kind of progression is sure to be felt.