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Ole Miss football 2021 preview: DJ Durkin and Chris Partridge add punch to front seven

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It’s been a minute since the defense looked like this.

Josh McCoy-Ole Miss Athletics

A year ago, the Ole Miss Rebels finished 5-5 with an Outback Bowl victory over 11th-ranked Indiana. On that January afternoon, DJ Durkin and Chris Partridge’s defense held the Hoosiers to 20 points. But, the rest of the year, opposing offenses averaged a whopping 40.3 points per game.

It’s no secret that with an improved defense, last year’s bunch could’ve won an extra game or two, but that’s last year. In 2021, Ole Miss’ defensive staff is going to be working with a much deeper front, returning notable experience at the first two levels. On top of that, they have added some significant pieces via recruiting and the transfer portal.

If Ole Miss is going to improve an SP+ defense that ranked 107th last season, they are going to be counting on a few new faces.

The JUCO transition needs to be quick.

In the 2021 signing class, Ole Miss added junior college defensive tackles Jamond Gordon and Isaiah Iton. Gordon, a 6-foot-4, 270-pounder from East Mississippi Community College who originally committed to Auburn out of Meridian High School, brings a ton of athleticism to a front seven that desperately needs playmaking ability. In high school, Gordon was a part of two 6A state basketball championship runner-up teams. As a guy on the interior, it’s imperative to be able to challenge centers and guards to pressure the quarterback.

And after arriving as a mid-year enrollee, Gordon looks the part.

EMCC didn’t play last fall due to COVID-19, but as a freshman, Gordon made his mark on the Lions’ defense, recording 21 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss.

Joining Gordon up front from the junior college ranks is hte 6-foot-4, 295-pounder from Hutchison Community College. Iton, originally from Houston, Tex., is another guy you want getting off the bus first.

Iton chose the Rebels over Arkansas, Florida State, and Tennessee and should factor into the starting lineup immediately when Ole Miss takes on Louisville in Atlanta Labor Day Weekend. Typically junior college transfers need a year to acclimate to Power 5 football, but Ole Miss desperately needs these two to be a factor day one.

The northeast impact could be felt early as well.

Gordon and Iton should be competing for starting jobs up front. And joining them in the fray are two notable signees from the northeast. Former four-star Tywone Malone was the gem of Lane Kiffin’s 2021 class and is someone, like Gordon, brings a ton of athleticism to the defensive line.

Malone probably won’t be asked to haul in too many receptions in Oxford, but his ability to get skinny in the middle will be imperative for a Rebel defense to create pressure up front to keep opposing quarterbacks from camping out in the pocket and picking the secondary apart like so many did a year ago.

Before a knee injury cost him to miss the majority of his senior season, Malone wrecked New Jersey offenses as a junior, making 54 total tackles, including 16 tackles for loss, and seven sacks. If the defense is going to take a step in year two under Durkin and Partridge, he is going to need to play a role.

Joining Malone in the trek from the northeast to Mississippi is Philadelphia, Pa. native Taleeq Robbins. The 6-foot-3, 305-pounder didn’t have a senior season due to the pandemic, but he was an All-State selection after collecting 40 tackles, six tackles for loss, and three sacks as a junior.

The Rebels fought off Arizona State, Auburn, Georgia, and Michigan for the talented defensive tackle and they expect him to play a role up front in 2021.

The transfer portal might be the difference this season.

A year ago, Ole Miss added two key pieces to a defense that needed some difference makers at the second level. Unfortunately, they had to sit out due to NCAA transfer rules. Navy linebacker Jake Springer and Southeast Missouri running back Mark Robinson made the switch to Oxford and are going to be counted on big-time this season at the linebacker position.

Springer, who is listed as a defensive back, will be hovering around the line of scrimmage all year, playing a hybrid safety/linebacker position. In 2019 with the Midshipmen, Springer made 69 total tackles and had eight sacks. The 6-foot-0, 205-pounder has to be eager to make a difference after sitting out the 2020 season and I personally anticipate him being a name to know on the defense.

Springer has a nose for the football and is always around the action. The Rebels were dead last in yards allowed per game and need someone like Springer to make plays behind the line of scrimmage and in the passing game.

Robinson ran for 911 yards and 11 touchdowns in 25 games for the Redhawks and has now made the transition to defense with Ole Miss. The Leesburg, Ga. native has been an instant spark in the linebacker room with his offensive skill set. At 6-foot-0, 220-pounds, he will bring some thump to the second level and sideline-to-sideline speed.

All of that was enough to move from walk-on to scholarship, too.

Joining Springer and Robinson at linebacker is Maryland transfer Chance Campbell. The 6-foot-3, 235-pounder from Ellicott City, Md. joined the team after graduating in the spring and could be in the starting lineup when Ole Miss hits the field at Mercedes Benz Stadium.

The honorable mention All-Big Ten selection led the Terps in 2020 with 43 tackles (22 solo) and 5.5 tackles for loss in just four games. He finished 12th in FBS and second in Big Ten with 11.0 tackles per game.

Also, he’s no slouch in pass coverage.

Not only does Campbell bring Power 5 experience, but he knows what Durkin wants defensively. He is familiar with his scheme and can fill gaps and make plays behind the line of scrimmage.

These three new additions at the second level will almost certainly make or break this defense in 2021 after Ole miss struggled to stop much of anything in 2020. Campbell, Robinson, and Springer bring a refreshing mix of moxy, speed, and strength to a defense that needs all the help it can get if it wants to break through a tough SEC West.