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Spring Football Notes and Observations: Defense.

The Rebs need a minor miracle to turn the defense around, but there are bright spots.

Auburn v Ole Miss Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Earlier this week, we took a high-level look at the Ole Miss offense after the close of Spring football, with a rundown of the top players at each position and the top performers in Saturday’s Grove Bowl scrimmage. Today, we’ll break down the defense, though with fewer observations from the Grove Bowl. It was very apparent that Lane Kiffin was not going to tolerate any hard tackling from the defense; that, in combination with an extremely simplified defensive playbook, and there weren’t too many useful takeaways on the defensive side of the ball.

I’d previously mentioned the crazy number of injured players this spring, a situation that heavily impacted the defensive personnel available. Senior defensive end Cedric Johnson missed the entire spring period, as did senior cornerback Deantre Prince. Defensive tackle Tywone Malone only made it to a couple of practices while splitting time with the baseball team; defensive ends Jak Brown and Jaden Dicks missed most if not all practices with injury, and I believe cornerback Demarko Williams missed the spring period as well. Let’s take a look at where things stand post-Spring ball at each position:

Defensive tackle: Without Malone available, the defensive tackle rotation was pretty tight, with JJ Pegues playing the 3 technique (I think; not a football coach), and NC State transfer Joshua Harris battling sophomore Zxavian Harris at nose tackle. The Harrises seemed to settle into a 1a/1b sort of situation, a trend that I’d expect to continue in the fall, while Pegues will continue to be relied on to play as many snaps as he can tolerate. Jamond Gordon and Demarcus Smith both look to be solid rotational players, and both could spell Pegues or play some defensive end in the Rebels’ three down-linemen sets. In case it isn’t clear how thin the depth situation is at defensive tackle: walkon Tavion Prather played extensively for both teams in the Grove Bowl. Update: Haha, Tywone Malone is in the transfer portal. Neat.

Defensive end: Jared Ivey appears to have been putting in weight room work, and looks to be one of the biggest impact players on Pete Golding’s defense after a solid first season at Ole Miss. In Cedrick Johnson’s absence, JJ Hawkins got a ton of work with the first team defense, and looks like he could be the first defensive end off the bench. As previously mentioned, Jamond Gordon and Demarcus Smith could play at defensive end or tackle, but beyond that, there are the often-injured Jak Brown and Jaden Dicks, then two incoming freshmen in Jamarious Brown and Chamberlain Campbell.

Buck: Pete Golding’s defense uses a hybrid “Buck” defender in most of its sets, a change that looks like it will benefit Reginald Hughes. A JUCO signee from the 2022 class, Hughes rarely sniffed the field last year, but now is battling it out with JUCO newcomer Jameer Lewis as the top options at the Buck position. Both guys showed some nice quick-twitch speed rushing skills in the Grove Bowl, but again, with the extremely limited contact allowed, it’s hard to project how effective they’ll be when things get real. Jak Brown might also play the “Buck” position if/when he gets healthy, and incoming freshman DeeJay Holmes will also likely start out there.

Linebacker: The linebacker room brought in two portal additions in Louisville transfer Monty Montgomery and UCF product Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste. The Rebels needed star power at the linebacker position, but the two newcomers seem to be battling it out neck-and-neck with returners Ashanti Cistrunk and Khari Coleman. I feel confident in saying that all four guys are SEC contributor-level players, but none are going to be superstars. Five-star signee Suntarine Perkins could absolutely snatch up a starting linebacker spot from day one when he arrives on campus, if he’s mentally ready for the next level. Sophomore Tyler Banks should get some rotational work, as should redshirt freshman Trip White.

Cornerback: Another position where a not-fun depth situation is emerging. Deantre Prince missed all of Spring ball while recovering from groin surgery, so hopefully he’ll be back close to 100% by Fall. The opposite starter should be Georgia Tech transfer Zamari Walton, who had a solid camp, proving he’s a starter-quality addition. I expect him to be equivalent if not a slight upgrade over Miles Battle and Davison Igbinosun, the two guys who took turns starting opposite Prince last year. Markevious Brown was a solid 3rd/4th option last year, and was set to receive extensive playing time as the undisputed 3rd corner this year. Unfortunately he hopped in the portal on Wednesday along with Tywone Malone and Elijah Sabbatini. Brown is probably the biggest need of those three, so don’t be surprised if Ole Miss shells out some more NIL funds to keep him around. Sophomore walk-on Richard O’Bryant played a ton with the first team defense at cornerback, and true freshman AJ Brown apparently impressed as well, after starting out at safety. Still, the position looks extremely thin without Brown, so expect cornerback to be addressed in the portal in some capacity.

Safety: The Rebs aren’t in a terrible spot at safety, due to a strong Spring from Trey Washington and John Saunders. Washington, now a junior, was probably the second safety off the bench in 2022, with AJ Finley and Otis Reese locking down two starting spots, and Isheem Young, Tysheem Johnson, and Ladarius Tennison taking turns filling the other two starting safety roles. With three of those five guys gone, Washington looks to join Young, Tennison, and Miami (OH) transfer John Saunders as the four main safeties. Saunders led all tacklers in the Grove Bowl with 13 stops. Saunders played mostly cornerback prior to arriving in Oxford, but has great height for a defensive back. He mainly played close to the line of scrimmage in the Grove Bowl, but I could see Golding moving him around to make use of his coverage skills. Redshirt freshman and former four-star Taylor Groves also flashed a little bit in the Grove Bowl, and may be ready to contribute.