When people talk about this year’s Ole Miss football team, they start with the wide receivers. With at least three future NFLers, including superstar A.J. Brown, the Rebels boast what Athlon Sports deems the best wide-out corps in the country.
But there’s a position group on the other side of the ball that could potentially be just as productive. Despite losing its top two players in the early rounds of the NFL Draft, the Ole Miss D-line has the talent, size and experience to be one of the SEC’s most disruptive forces in 2018.
D-line coach Freddie Roach has done a phenomenal job recruiting and developing talent along the defensive front. While the defense as a whole ranked 76th or worse in every major S&P+ category last season, the D-line put up impressive numbers: ninth in adjusted sack rate and top-30 in defensive line havoc rate.
The Rebs are trying to replace 14.5 sacks after the departure of Marquis Haynes and Breeland Speaks, but the defensive front could nevertheless be even better.
This group is deep and talented.
Roach’s group includes All-SEC returner Benito Jones, mainstays Victor Evans, Josiah Coatney, Austrian Robinson, Ross Donelly, Sincere David, and Ryder Anderson. And that’s just the two-deep. Markel Winters and Qaadir Sheppard battled injuries last season and will be counted on big-time this year to not only provide depth but to make plays regularly.
Robinson, David, and Evans are going to be counted on heavily this season and it is essentially put up or shut up time. They haven’t contributed a ton of production in years past, but they are all equipped with sturdy frames and play-making abilities.
Sheppard and Anderson will push for playing time. Sheppard is recovering from a foot injury that sidelined him in 2017 and the 6’6, 244-pound Anderson really came into his own late in the season, playing in 11 games and closing the season strong in the Egg Bowl with three tackles and a sack.
If you’re keeping score at home, we’ve run through nine names as potential play-makers for the 2018 season. That’s a lot of depth.
And there’s more...
Outside of the starters and back-ups, sophomore Charles Wiley is more than likely going to be counted on this season to provide a spark at end. The former four-star only played in nine games last year, recording six tackles and one tackle for loss, but I suspect that Roach expects a big year from the Stockbridge, Ga. native. The 6’2, 258-pounder reminds me a lot of Speaks and he could make an impact this year coming off the edge with his rare blend of speed and strength.
Another name to keep an eye on up front is Harlem, N.Y. native Austrian Robinson. The former No. 34-ranked strong-side defensive end has struggled to learn defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff’s new system, but he is coming off his best season. In 2017, Robinson played in 10 games, making 29 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. He saved his best performance for last, collecting a career-high eight tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and a pass breakup against Mississippi State.
The Rebels got a big boost before fall camp when 2018 signee Tariqious Tisdale completed his course work and became eligible for the fall. Tisdale comes to Oxford as the No. 7-ranked JUCO strong-side defensive end and he is athletic enough to move inside and play a three technique.
They need to get better at stopping the run, though.
The Ole Miss pass rush was dominant last season, ranking ninth in adjusted sack rate third in passing downs sack rate. The problem was that the run D was so lousy that the opposing teams didn’t face many passing situations.
With the linebackers still iffy, the interior of the D-line will need to step up to help stop the run. The good news is that Roach brings back three key contributors in the middle and signed a trio of impact tackles.
JUCO All-American Hal Northern will be expected to spell Jones and Donelly in the middle. The 6’3, 293-pounder is almost a clone to Jones and should have an immediate impact. Another 2018 signee who could find himself playing a lot and providing depth in the middle is Alabama native Jalen Cunningham, a 6’6, 345-pounder who could one day be a Jerrell Powe or Peria Jerry of sorts in the middle.
Yes, I am aware of just how talented A.J., D.K., and DaMarkus are. But the overwhelming quantity of quality in the defensive line room cannot be ignored. Chicks dig the receiver who snags a 65-yard touchdown grab then hits a Fortnite dance in the end zone, but the money is made or lost in the trenches. Believe that.