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Ole Miss Secondary Preview: Part 2 - Safeties

Stop big plays, please.

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Mississippi Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

This is the followup to a recent piece outlining the cornerback situation at Ole Miss, which you can find here.

Ole Miss’ base 3-2-6 defense requires six defensive backs, so there need to be excellent safeties who can function as hybrid players, playing many different roles not typical of safeties in a more traditional defense. Luckily, Ole Miss has great depth at the position as it enters the 2022 season. While there was returning talent on campus already last season, the staff did a phenomenal job supplementing that with proven transfers.

The role of a safety in this defense can be almost anything. They can function as linebackers, center fielder-type ballhawks, nickel corners, and anything in between. Last season, the Ole Miss defense struggled without Jake Springer, mounting pitiful performances against Tennessee and Arkansas, so how will they fare without him? Also, who will fill his shoes? Let’s get into it.

The Ole Miss Veterans

Seniors AJ Finley and Otis Reese are set in stone as starters in this defense. They brought it every game last season ranking fourth and second in total tackles, respectively. While in a traditional defense, safeties with high tackle totals are a bad sign, in a 3-2-6, you want them in on as many plays as they can be. Otis Reese, in particular, hurls himself at ballcarriers with a reckless abandon not typical of the position. He will spend most of his time playing closer to the line, though he’s not bad in coverage either.

But he’s also no AJ Finley. Finley is a huge reason this team finished second in the SEC in pass efficiency defense. He’s all over the field and has a nose for where the ball is going. While more interceptions would be nice to see (Finley led the team with just three), the important thing is to prevent big plays. Finley is adept at that.

Tysheem Johnson was named a freshman All-American a season ago, as he fit right in with a veteran group. Johnson finished the season ninth in total tackles (47) with four TFLs. Like Reese, he’s not bad in coverage but makes his living stopping the run or getting into the backfield. Johnson seems primed for a larger role this season.

Other returning players Trey Washington and MJ Daniels have both played as well and look to be backups who are groomed to step in for the graduates next year.

The Transfers

Isheem Young is an early pick for Ole Miss’ defensive newcomer of the year. Young was the Co-Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2020 at Iowa State and followed that up with a strong sophomore year before transferring to Ole Miss. He’s a headhunter and will likely be a fan favorite on Saturdays. One thing to note is that Young ran the defense on which Ole Miss’ was modeled at Iowa State. The Ole Miss coaches quite literally flew to Aimes to learn how their 3-2-6 defense worked and built their own last year with that input. The learning curve shouldn’t be very steep.

Auburn transfer Ladarius Tennison is steady, having played meaningful snaps in the SEC. Neither of his two seasons in Auburn lit the world on fire, with 21 and 22 tackles respectively, but he was a primary backup and had big games against Mississippi State (9 tackles) and A&M (8) last season.

The freshman

Taylor Groves is the lone high school signee. The four-star Tennessee product had offers from A&M, Tennessee, Notre Dame, LSU, Michigan State, Arkansas, Michigan, and many more but knew he wanted to be in Oxford early in the process and locked it down, never visiting any other school. Groves (6’2” 195) isn’t likely to be a major player this season but could step into a key role within the next few seasons.