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Rebels in the Pros: What are the defensive players up to in 2020 Training Camp?

The Landsharks are swarming.

San Francisco 49ers Training Camp Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Ole Miss football has had some dominant defenses over the past decade. The Landshark group would not have its name without a physical group of talented athletes ready to fit the bill in the NFL. We’ve already discussed the players who could make a mark on offense.

Let’s take a look at the former Rebels who could see time on defense in 2020:

Woodrow Hamilton, DT — Carolina Panthers

NFL: Carolina Panthers-Minicamp Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

At 27 years old, Woodrow Hamilton will have his first true opportunity to find himself on the depth chart for new head coach Matt Rhule. The former Ole Miss nose tackle has spent time on and off practice squads and active rosters with New England, New Orleans, New York (Giants), and Carolina in his five years. He signed a futures contract with the Panthers in December of 2018 but was waived during final roster cuts in August of 2019. He re-signed to the active roster in November.

The defensive tackle spot is sured-up with No. 7 overall pick Derrick Brown and returning veteran Kawann Short, but Hamilton can secure the third spot on the depth chart during training camp. He will have to compete with sixth-round pick Bravvion Roy, but the 6-foot-3, 300-pound Raleigh, Miss. native is the frontrunner.

Hamilton is running out of time to earn a rotational spot in the NFL, and he might not get a window of opportunity like this again. This is the most pivotal summer of his career to date.

Breeland Speaks, DL — Kansas City Chiefs

The internet-famous, Super Bowl champion missed 2019 with injury but is in the best shape of his career entering his third season.

Benito Jones, DT — Miami Dolphins

Miami Dolphins Training Camp Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

When the Waynesboro cattle rancher did not hear his name called in April, it was a shock to many Rebel fans. The big-bodied interior lineman was a chaos creator in the trenches of the SEC. His true nose tackle limitations in a league that doesn’t frequently use a 0-technique will require him to blow away his front office to earn a roster spot, but the untapped raw potential is undeniable.

Unfortunately, Benito Jones has been placed on the COVID-19/Reserve list twice during camp. This does not necessarily mean he tested positive, but in both instances he was in close contact with someone showing symptoms or flagged positive. He returned to the active roster in early August and will compete with Zach Sieler for the third spot at nose tackle behind Raekwon Davis and Davon Godchaux, if the Dolphins chose to carry three linemen at the position. That decision will depend on the usage of 3-4/4-3 defense.

D.J. Jones, DT — San Francisco 49ers

San Francisco 49ers Training Camp Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

After working his way to Ole Miss from East Mississippi Community College and imposing his will on offensive lineman in the SEC, D.J. Jones was drafted in the sixth round of the 2017 NFL Draft. When he got to California, he became an important part of the defensive line rotation and was in on 13 percent of defensive snaps as a rookie and 22 percent in 2018. After a strong first two years, Jones started 11 games last season before he suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 14 that landed him on the Injury Reserve.

He returned fully from injury in time for training camp but took a hit to the shoulder in the team’s fifth practice back and missed a few days. Jones got back on the field on August 25th and spoke at the team’s press conference, saying that he no longer wants to talk about his shoulder and is focused on staying healthy and playing football. His impact was felt right away, as he made an athletic interception that afternoon.

A lack of depth on the defensive line was part of the reason the 49ers couldn’t hold on to its lead over the Chiefs in the Super Bowl, and Jones’ return is a welcomed sight. He will work alongside and share snaps with San Francisco’s first round draft pick Javon Kinlaw.

Lavon Hooks, DT — Pittsburgh Steelers

A former UDFA signed by the Green Bay Packers in 2015, Lavon Hooks has been a staple at the Steelers’ camps since 2016 and has spent the past few years on the practice squad. He was hoping to make a legitimate push for the 53-man roster in 2019 but suffered a torn Achilles during the summer ending his season before it began.

Hooks is back for 2020 and the 6-foot-3, 312-pound defensive tackle will have his work cut out for him if he wants to beat out Chris Wornley, Daniel McCullers and Henry Mondeaux for playing time behind Cam Heyward and Isaiah Buggs.

Marquis Haynes, EDGE — Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers Training Camp Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The SEC’s all-time sack leader since 2005 was a dominant force on a Landshark group that snapped necks and cashed checks in 2014 and 2015, and then he anchored the Ole Miss defense in his final two years. Marquise Haynes was drafted in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft and saw time in 11 games last season, tallying 10 tackles for Carolina.

Haynes has been in and out of concussion protocol twice during camp, but head coach Matt Rhule said he is someone who has always stood out. He enters his third year likely to make the 53-man roster for the Panthers and has added five pounds in the offseason. The 26-year-old played at 235 last season but will play at 240 this fall.

Myles Hartsfield, DB — Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers

In the secondary behind Haynes, Myles Hartsfield has been the most delightful surprise of 2020 training camp. The undrafted rookie defensive back has impressed Carolina’s first-year coaching staff on both sides of the ball. Hartsfield has been carrying the rock as a running back for half of practice, and then switching to his natural corner spot for the other.

He recently picked off a deflected P.J. Walker pass and returned it down the right sideline.

The Panthers are going under significant change this summer and bringing a new approach to this season. Hartsfield seems to be a lock to make the 53-man roster as a two-way player.

A.J. Moore & C.J. Moore, DB — Houston Texans & Detroit Lions

Both twins have a real shot to make an impact in their third and second years in the NFL.

Ken Webster, DB — Miami Dolphins

Miami Dolphins Training Camp Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The ultimate case of ‘what could have been,’ Ken Webster had a chance to be one of the best cornerbacks to ever play at Ole Miss if not for a knee injury that hindered his production as an upperclassman. Nevertheless, the 5-foot-11, 203-pound 24-year-old made his way to the league. He was drafted by the Patriots, let go during final roster cuts and then recorded 19 tackles and a pass deflection in eight games and five starts with the Dolphins a year ago. He was placed on the injured reserve list in December and enters his second training camp as a bubble guy for Miami.

If the season were to begin today, he would likely be the sixth cornerback on the 53-man roster behind Byron Jones, Xavien Howard, Noah Igbinoghene, Jamal Perry and Nik Needham.

Mike Hilton, DB — Pittsburgh Steelers

Mike Hilton is the best cornerback to ever play at Ole Miss and the most underrated defensive back in the NFL. He was signed as an UDFA by the Jaguars in 2016 and spent time on the Patriots’ practice squad later that season. Belichick missed on the former Rebel and let him walk. Hilton signed with Pittsburgh in December and spent the remainder of his rookie season on the practice squad.

Hilton was named the starting nickelback (over Senquez Golson) to begin the 2017 regular season and has taken the league by storm over. Statistically speaking, he allowed only 19 first down receptions on 314 slot coverage snaps in 2019 and was ranked one of the top-25 corner backs by Pro Football Focus.

The 26-year-old looks great so far this summer.

He signed a second-round tender with the team in June and will again start in the secondary this season.

Jalen Julius, DB — Free Agent

After being signed by the Kansas City Chiefs immediately after the NFL Draft, Jalen Julius was waived by the team in July. He most recently worked out with Seattle on August 29th.

DeMarquis Gates, LB — Free Agent

The XFL and AAF superstar continues to be overlooked by NFL front offices. DeMarquis Gates was brought to training camp by the Vikings earlier this summer but was waived on August 13th. With Cam Smith missing the season and Ben Gedeon on the PUP list, Minnesota has just six linebackers and could bring him back on before the season.

It really doesn’t make sense that Gates is not on a 53-man roster somewhere.

It’s really hard to imagine there are 192 linebackers better than him.

Austrian Robinson, DL — Free Agent

Austrian Robinson showed flashes of greatness and was awarded the 2019 Chucky Mullins Courage Award, but his career in Oxford wasn’t a statistical standout. His big frame and raw athleticism sparked the interest of the Panthers after the NFL Draft, and he signed as a free agent in April.

When Carolina brought in veteran linebacker Adarius Taylor, Robinson was placed on waivers. He has not signed with another team since his release and will likely end up on the team’s practice squad if he is not claimed before the season begins.

Josiah Coatney, DL — Free Agent

A graduate from Ole Miss in 2020, Josiah Coatney was not selected in the NFL Draft and signed shortly after its conclusion with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was released by the team on August 2nd but could find himself back in Steel City as a practice squad player. The team desperately needs depth on the defensive line, and Coatney would be a nice addition.

Most recently, the 6-foot-4, 325-pound 4-3 defensive tackle and a 3-4 defensive end worked out with the Buffalo Bills on August 15th and with the Detroit Lions on August 25th.

Fadol Brown, DE — Free Agent

Fadol Brown, a 2017 Ole Miss alum, signed with the Oakland Raiders after the draft. He spent his rookie season on the practice squad and then played in eight games with Oakland in 2018.

The physicality and athleticism was there, but he was waived in December. Since his release in 2018, Brown has spent time with Green Bay and Chicago. It has been an up-and-down career thus far, and his opportunity to start is likely past, but the nail is not in the coffin on finding a home in the NFL just yet.

Robert Nkemdiche, DL — Free Agent

Well, The Legend Merlyn seems to have run his course in the NFL for the time being. The consensus No. 1 overall player in the 2013 recruiting class was an absolute freak at Ole Miss. However, his off-field antics hindered his stock and kept him from reaching his full potential.

Robert Nkemdiche was drafted No. 29 overall by the Cardinals in 2016, recorded 44 tackles with the team in his three years out west, and then failed his physical and was waived by the team in 2018. He signed with the Dolphins before last season but spent the early portion of the year on the PUP list while recovering from knee surgery. He was activated by Miami prior to Week 8 and was waived seven days later. Nkemdiche then received a suspension from the NFL on November 13th and was reinstated on November 26th.

A team may take a chance on him at some point, but for right now, the career is on hold.