My, oh my, how things can change.
The Ole Miss defense turned things around this season in a major way, going from a historically awful unit to one that held 9 of 12 opponents to 26 or fewer points. The defense was the difference in many of the team’s huge wins this season - with the team and coaches earning significant praise.
But now the regular season is over, so the question becomes, “can they do it again?”
After all, many of the best players on the defense were seniors or transfers. Most of them will be gone, and the defense will have to establish a new identity. It will get an influx of new transfers and signees who could potentially contribute. Kiffin’s staff hasn’t really hit huge home runs in recruiting (even when its classes have been ranked in the top 25), but it certainly has hit on transfers. Honestly, I can’t think of one who hasn’t been a significant contributor.
But let’s assume for a moment this team strikes out in recruiting and the transfer portal, failing to bring impact players to Oxford. What happens then? The defense certainly needs to add talent, but I don’t think the foundation is as dire as it seemed a month or two ago.
Let’s take a look at a very hypothetical starting unit.
DE Cedric Johnson | JR | 2021 Stats: 27 tackles, 6.5 sacks
Cedric Johnson was excellent off the edge at times this season. If it weren’t for Sam Williams’ performance this year, Johnson would have finished with the most sacks in a season since Marquis Haynes in 2017.
Cedric Johnson with the strip-sack, Jake Springer with the recovery! pic.twitter.com/d3KPL7Ct1y— Ole Miss Football (@OleMissFB) October 23, 2021
Next season will show us how much of his production was a result of starting across from Williams, but Johnson gives fans real hope for a pass rush.
NT KD Hill | SR | 23 tackles, countless hamstring injuries
Hill had a strong season as well, serving as the anchor in the 3-2-6 and fending off double teams on every play. His return is another asset to a rebuilding defense.
DE Tavius Robinson | SR | 28 tackles, 3.5 sacks
Robinson spelled Williams and Johnson a good bit this season with moderate success. The coaches are likely looking for ends in the portal, but if Robinson is a worst case scenario, that’s a good spot to be in.
Mr.Tavius Robinson again!!! pic.twitter.com/rVoPH9k28h— Patrick Robinson (@Patrick76400338) November 14, 2021
LB Ashanti Cistrunk | SR | 26 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 INT
Cistrunk had a huge interception from the safety/linebacker hybrid position against Texas A&M and played a part in a historic season. I’m not sure the staff really sees him as a starting linebacker, but he’s a solid player who could fill in here in a pinch.
LB Chance Campbell | SR | 99 tackles, 6 sacks, 3 FFs
I know. I know. There’s a good chance he’s not coming back. Still, he does have another year of eligibility, and his departure isn’t a sure thing. I don’t have to spend time talking about the impact the return of Chance Campbell would have on this defense.
Chance Campbell with the defensive play of the game so far pic.twitter.com/RsL8hAd9nm— T.J. (@TJOxley1) October 9, 2021
CB Deantre Prince | SR | 43 tackles, 3 PDs, 2 INTs, 1 FF
Prince made a number of flashy plays this season as a starter at cornerback. It’s tough to evaluate corners in this defense, but he’s certainly not a weakness. Occasionally he does stuff like this...
Oh my goodness. Deantre Prince just made one of the best interceptions you’ll ever see. pic.twitter.com/zPdU1VG426— Connor O'Gara (@cjogara) November 21, 2021
CB Miles Battle | SR | 21 tackles, 8 PDs
Battle, at 6’3”, has incredible size for the position and was regularly asked to match up with the biggest receivers deep down the field. Certainly, there were times when it didn’t really work, but there’s a lot of potential here.
Miles Battle with his second big PD on the day pic.twitter.com/dJBl5ttVLa— T.J. (@TJOxley1) October 9, 2021
NB Tylan Knight | SR | 36 tackles, 1 PD, 1 sack
Knight isn’t the ideal starter at nickelback, primarily due to his size. Don’t get me wrong, he dominates ball carriers when he gets to them. It’s just tough for him to get off blocks sometimes. Still, he plays with reckless abandon, and a player like that has a spot on any defense.
Tylan Knight been in the weight room this summer pic.twitter.com/NgOpyyeifP— Barstool Ole Miss (@BarstoolOleMiss) September 7, 2021
S Otis Reese | SR | 86 tackles, 2 PDs, 1.5 sacks, 1 FF
Otis Reese is almost certain to start at a safety spot next season, even if his results are a mixed bag. Athletically, Reese is very capable. Obviously he’s also in on a lot of plays. He needs to work on taking better angles at times though, and I imagine that will be a point of emphasis in the offseason.
S AJ Finley | SR | 87 tackles, 3 PDs, 3 INTs, 1 FF
Finley is the best coverage safety on the team and will be one of the defense’s best players next season.
S Tysheem Johnson | SO | 44 tackles, 1 PD, 1 sack, 1 INT
You may not notice, but Johnson joins Cedric Johnson as the only two non-seniors on this list. That’s.... not great? Tysheem Johnson is one of the only players from Lane Kiffin’s first two classes who has produced so far, but produced he has. I’m a big fan of his game and look forward to seeing his progression next season.