At the conclusion of the 2014 season, the S&P+ advanced metrics system ranked Ole Miss as the second best defensive unit in the entire country—three spots above Bama, seven spots above LSU, 12 spots above Ohio State.
Two years later, the Rebels were down to 72nd. In 2017, they plumeted to 113th. The program’s defensive free fall hit a new low last Saturday when Alabama racked up 62 points and over 500 yards in a lopsided beatdown.
Much has been made of the shortcomings of defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff, whose resume was light on experience when he was hired by Hugh Freeze two years ago. But the root of Ole Miss’ defensive ineptitude can’t be explained by a year’s worth of poor coaching. Years of misses on the recruiting trail has left the Rebels’ defense terminally thin on depth and talent.
Ole Miss has recruited offensive players more effectively than defenders.
Dating back to Freeze, the Rebels have routinely punched above their weight when recruiting offensive blue chippers. The same can’t be said on the defensive side.
Former Rebel Walk recruiting writer Tucker Italiano laid it out there for God and everyone to see.
There’s also a talent disparity offensively between Ole Miss and the top echelon but at least there’s enough talent to allow coaching to fills the gaps. Ceiling much higher when you have decent 4/5* talent plus good player evaluations on underrated players. pic.twitter.com/OIAhv2N3NH— Tucker Italiano (@TuckerItaliano) September 17, 2018
Despite the last few years being full of top 30 classes (and even a top five class in 2016), the impact defensive guys are simply nowhere to be found. We talked about this on Podcast Rebellion last week after the Rebels gave up 38 first-half points to an FCS team at home.
To figure out how we got here, we’re taking a look back at the last three classes to evaluate who was signed and how they performed.
The 2015 class
Ranked 17th nationally, 21 signees (14 on defense)
When you see that more than half of the signees are defenders, you think we’re off to a great start. Well, not exactly.
4-star D.J. Jones was the No. 4 overall player in junior college and is now in the NFL. He was an impact guy as soon as he stepped on campus. So good get there. After that ...
- 4-star CB Tony Bridges: played in 21 games, made 59 total tackles and had three career interceptions
- 4-star S Armani Linton: now plays running back
- 3-star ATH Willie Hibbler: played in 13 career games, 31 total tackles
- 3-star CB Cameron Ordway: played in 12 career games, 18 total tackles
- 3-star CB Montrell Custis: played in 14 career games, 31 total tackles (out for the 2018 season)
- 3-star CB Jalen Julius: played in 18 career games, 44 total tackles
- 3-star SDE Austrian Robinson: played in 16 career games, 35 total tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks
- 3-star DT Ross Donelly: played in 16 career games, 38 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sack
- 3-star OLB Terry Caldwell: no longer with the team
- 3-star OLB Zedrick Woods: 38 career games, 172 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 7 passes defended, 4 interceptions
- 3-star OLB Shawn Curtis: no longer with the team
- 3-star WDE Rasool Clemons: went JUCO, eventually signed with Troy
- 3-star WDE Joe Anderson: went JUCO, committed to Houston, didn’t qualify
Out of the 14 defensive signees, one made it to the NFL, two more were impact starters (Bridges and Woods), while Julius, Donelly, and Robinson are playing somewhat significant snaps on this year’s team.
That simply will not get it done.
Notables misses: 5-star SDE Cece Jefferson (Florida), 5-star SDE Kyle Phillips (Tennessee) 4-star WDE Arden Key (LSU), 4-star ILB Leo Lewis (Miss. State), 4-star ILB Darrink Kirkland, Jr. (Tennessee), 4-star OLB Josh McMillon (Alabama), 4-star CB Rico McGraw (Georgia). 4-star S Jamal Peters (Miss. State)
The 2016 class
Ranked 5th nationally, 26 signees (10 on defense)
Wow! Fifth in the country! But wait, only 10 on the defensive side of the ball? Ugh.
Five-star Benito Jones is the obvious hit here. No doubt he has been a focal point of the defense since arriving. Josiah Coatney and Myles Hartsfield have been mainstays since arriving as well and Jaylon Jones was a surprise impact guy as a freshman. The other signees? Not so much.
- 5- star DT Benito Jones: 26 career games, 78 total tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks
- 4-star S Deontay Anderson: transferred to Houston
- 4-star CB Jaylon Jones: 26 career games, 84 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks (out for the 2018 season)
- 4-star SDE Charles Wiley: 12 career games, 6 total tackles, 1 tackle for loss
- 3-star SDE Josiah Coatney: 15 career games, 80 total tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks
- 3-star S Greg Eisworth: transferred to Iowa State
- 3-star ILB Donta Evans: 9 career games, 22 total tackles, 1 tackle for loss
- 3-star S Myles Hartsfield: 27 career games, 92 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions
- 3-star ILB Detric Bing-Dukes: 30 career games, 71 total tackles, 3 tackles for loss
- 3-star WDE Tariqious Tisdale: went JUCO, enrolled early in 2018, 8 total tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss
This class was top-heavy defensively, but lacking a top-to-bottom haul of impact dudes. Anderson’s departure hurt, and Eisworth was allegedly turning heads in practice before deciding to transfer. The linebacker signees continue to be very bad.
Notable misses: 5-star SDE Jeffery Simmons (Miss. State), 5-star DT Rashan Gary (Michigan), 5-star ILB Mique Juarez (UCLA), 4-star WDE Terrell Lewis (Alabama), 4-star DT Raekwon Davis (Alabama), 4-star SDE Jonathan Kongbo (Tennessee), 4-star ILB Daniel Bituli (Tennessee), 4-star ILB Davis Luafatasaga (Utah), 4-star CB Nigel Knott (Alabama), 4-star CB Shyheim Carter (Alabama), 4-star CB Eric Cuffee (Texas), 4-star S Brandon Jones (Texas)
The 2017 class
Ranked 31st nationally, 23 signees (15 on defense)
Hey! Look, tons of defensive signees! We’re doing it, right?!
No, your two highest-ranked signees are gone and another went to junior college.
- 4-star ATH D.D. Bowie: 5 career games, 6 total tackles, transferred to Northeast Mississippi Community College
- 4-star WDE Chester Graves: went JUCO, now No. 1 overall player in junior college in the 2019 class
- 4-star OLB Breon Dixon: 3 career games, 5 total tackles, transferred to Nebraska
- 3-star ILB Mohamed Sanogo: 8 career games, 28 total tackles, 1 tackle for loss
- 3-star ATH Kam White: redshirted in 2017, 2 career games, 0 tackles
- 3-star OLB Josh Clarke: redshirted in 2017, 1 career game, 1 total tackle
- 3-star WDE Markel Winters: 7 career games, 8 total tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 0.5 sack
- 3-star S A.J. Harris: redshirted in 2017, 1 career games, 0 tackles
- 3-star ILB Brenden Williams: 2 career games, 2 career tackles
- 3-star CB Jamar Richardson: went JUCO, committed to Ole Miss for 2019 class
- 3-star CB Javien Hamilton: 12 career games, 27 total tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 3 interceptions
- 3-star S C.J. Miller: 4 career games, 10 total tackles
- 3-star DT Sincere David: redshirted in 2017, 2 career games
- 3-star WDE Ryder Anderson: 8 career games, 17 total tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks
- 3-star ILB Zikerrion Baker: 2 career games, 3 total tackles
The miss on Graves stung and Bowie and Dixon transferring hurts even more because of their potential impact on the second and third levels, respectively. Hamilton has been a starter in the secondary the last two years but other than that, zero instant impact dudes in this class.
Notable misses: 4-star SDE Isaiah Buggs (Alabama), 4-star DT Elijah Conliffe (Florida), 4-star ILB Jacob Phillips (LSU), 4-star ILB Gary Johnson (Texas), 4-star ILB Will Ignont, 4-star ILB Santino Marchiol, 4-star ILB Monty Rice (Georgia), 4-star OLB Willie Gay (Miss. State), 4-star OLB Nathan Proctor (Virginia Tech), 4-star S Todd Harris (LSU), 4-star S C.J. Avery (Louisville), 3-star OLB Thomas Johnston (UAB), 3-star ILB Adonis Thomas (Alabama), 3-star SDE Bryan Jones (Houston)
The 2018 class
Ranked 32nd nationally, 21 signees (14 on defense)
Matt Luke’s first class shows a recognition of the lack of defensive depth and talent. But the follow-through leaves a lot to be desired.
And your one potential instant impact guy has gone the junior college route.
- 4-star DT Noah Jefferson: didn’t qualify, signed with FAU
- 3-star OLB Kevontae’ Ruggs: 2 career games, 6 total tackles
- 3-star SDE James Williams: went JUCO
- 3-star OLB Vernon Dasher: 2 career games, 10 total tackles, 1 interception, 1 defensive touchdown
- 3-star OLB Jacquez Jones: 3 career games, 17 total tackles, 0.5 sack, 1 forced fumble
- 3-star DT Hal Northern: 1 career game, 3 total tackles
- 3-star DT KD Hill: 1 career game
- 3-star S Cam White: went JUCO
- 3-star CB Jakorey Hawkins: yet to play
- 3-star DT Quentin Bivens: 2 career games
- 3-star CB Keidron Smith: 3 career games, 11 total tackles, 0.5 tackle for loss, 1 interception
- 3-star OLB Jonathan Hess: 1 career game, 1 total tackle
- 3-star OLB Luke Knox: 1 career game
- 2-star CB Tylan Knight: plays offense, 3 career games, 45 yards rushing
In terms of instant impact, Ruggs, Dasher, Jones, and Smith have been good. But that is just four dudes. And they are first-year guys.
After missing for three years, that is simply not enough.
Notable misses: 4-star WDE Jordan Davis (Alabama), 4-star SDE Kayode Oladele (Auburn), 4-star DT Greg Emerson (Tennessee), 4-star OLB Chris Oats (Kentucky), 4-star Cam’ron Jones (Nebraska), 4-star OLB Davion Taylor (Colorado), 4-star Mario Goodrich (Clemson), 3-star SDE Fabien Lovett (Miss. State), 3-star OLB Matt Flynt (UNC), 3-star S Joseph Foucha (Arkansas), 3-star OLB Jayden McDonald (Iowa), 3-star CB Rayshad Williams (UCLA), 3-star CB Jaylin Williams (Indiana), 3-star CB Jaylon Reed (Miss. State), 3-star SDE Dorian Gerald (Arkansas), 3-star ILB Will Honas (Nebraska), 3-star ILB Jett Johnson (Miss. State), 3-star ILB Jaylen Moody (Alabama)
The 2019 class finish remains to be seen. As of now, there are 27 commits in Luke’s second class. Eleven of those are defensive players. I, along with you, have to hope that Luke and his staff are going to make some room for more defensive players. The instant impact dudes are out there. And they are all #MississippiMade.
- 5-star ILB Nakobe Dean
- 4-star SDE Jaren Handy (committed to Auburn)
- 4-star ATH Brandon Turnage (committed to Alabama)
- 4-star SDE Byron Young (committed to Alabama)
- 4-star WDE Derick Hall
- 3-star WDE Jamond Gordon (committed to Auburn)
Some of those guys are committed elsewhere, but all are still somewhat in play for this coaching staff. If you can get any, if not all, in the boat, then 2019 and 2020 can be a different story.
The 2019 class is going to have to add highly-ranked defensive recruits.
If it doesn’t, well, Saturday was just the beginning.