In 2014, Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack cultivated perhaps the nation’s top defensive unit. Never has the affectionate nickname of the Rebel defense, the Landsharks, come into so much focus. According to scoring defense, Wommack’s unit was the nation’s best in 2014, as they led the FBS by allowing just 16 points per game while playing in arguably the nation’s toughest division. Additionally, the Landsharks were responsible for 28 sacks and 22 interceptions, while only allowing 12 passing touchdowns and nine rushing scores.
Many Ole Miss fans vividly remember the important faces of that group: Cody Prewitt, Trae Elston, Senquez Golson, Tony Conner, Deterrian Shackelford, C.J. Johnson, Robert Nkemdiche, Issac Gross, Marquis Haynes and others.
A few of those faces are still around in 2016, and they are seeking to lead a group that would like to recreate the success of 2014.
Though the Rebels will be without some of the Landsharks of year’s past, they do return some key playmakers such as Tony Conner, Issac Gross and Marquis Haynes–star players who are looking to prove they are more than capable.
Let’s compare the two units by breaking them down by position:
Trae Elston and Cody Prewitt were a more than solid tandem in that 2014 season. They delivered and even set the tone for the entire defense. The safety position in 2016 doesn’t possess the same savvy and experience as it did with those guys manning the back end, but there is talent. Zedrick Woods has impressed the coaches throughout spring and fall. He brings many of the same qualities found in Mike Hilton.
C.J. Hampton is cut from the same cloth as Prewitt and Elston, but he still must prove that on the field. His chance will never be better than it is this season. Armani Linton will be just a redshirt freshman this fall, but his body will remind many Ole Miss fans of Prewitt. He possesses many of those same outfielder-like qualities, as well.
While safety may a spot that the 2016 Rebels don’t exactly add up to the 2014 roster, on paper, cornerback is a different story.
Ken Webster was on that unit in 2014, but flash forward to this fall and Webster is a different player. Webster and senior Tony Bridges will start at corner for the Landsharks in 2016. Carlos Davis and true freshman Jalen Julius will back them up, along with Kailo Moore and Cam Ordway, which makes the corner spots one of the strongest on paper heading into the 2016 season.
That being said, there is no doubt they have big shoes to fill from a player of the caliber of 2014’s Senquez Golson.
Tying the corners and safeties corners together will be Tony Conner. In fact, Conner can even provide a boost to the linebacker group. That’s why he’s such a perfect fit in the huskie role for Wommack’s unit.
Similar to former Pittsburgh Steeler and USC Trojan, Troy Polamalu, Conner is one of those guys that is simply all over the field and does whatever has to do prevent the offense from moving forward. He will impact the Rebel defense in many ways in 2016, including, making plays against the pass and the run, well-timed blitzes and even leadership.
Conner will be in the All-SEC discussion at season’s end and draft conversation on night one of the 2017 NFL draft next spring.
The Rebels had both depth and experience at linebacker in 2014. Serderius Bryant, Deterrian Shackelford, Keith Lewis and Denzel Nkemdiche were stalwarts. Some would say the 2014 unit wasn’t quite as athletic as the group is now, but each of those four guys had strong games and SEC experience aplenty.
There is no question, however, that this year’s linebackers are extremely athletic and could be better suited for the 4-2-5 scheme that Wommack likes to use.
Middle linebacker DeMarquis Gates played for the unit in 2014, but in 2016 he is viewed as a leader of the group and a potential breakout star in the SEC. Gates recorded 76 stops during the 2015 season, making him the Rebels’ returning leading tackler.
Senior outside linebacker (stinger) Terry Caldwell played in every game last season with three starts at Mike linebacker. Caldwell’s highlight moment came against Oklahoma State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl when he led Ole Miss with a season-high six tackles (five solo) and a forced fumble.
Caldwell is backed up by Tayler Polk and Ray Ray Smith. Wommack has already commented that Polk may be one of the most improved players on the team.
In the off-season, Hugh Freeze and staff were able to snag Oregon State graduate transfer linebacker Rommel Mageo. He led the Beavers in tackles last season and will pair nicely beside Gates this fall. Additionally, Detric Bing-Dukes, originally a Georgia signee out of high school, picked the Rebels as his transfer spot, as well. He comes from junior college with four years to play three. Redshirt freshman Willie Hibbler, who was signed as a tight end, has moved to the linebacker spot and shown promise.
Chris Kiffin’s group is certainly where most eyes are focusing following the departure of Robert Nkemdiche to the NFL. He is the biggest name to leave the unit from a season ago and was a first round draft selection.
The defensive trenches could, however, provide the biggest and brightest breakout player on the unit this season. Breeland Speaks will only be a redshirt sophomore this fall, but he has all the talent to be one of the best at his position in the conference. True freshman and five-star early enrollee Benito Jones might just be ready to make some plays this fall, as well.
Nose tackle D.J. Jones is also likely to reach league-wide stardom with more snaps this season. Behind him will be longtime master of disruption Issac Gross. His experience, leadership and passion will benefit the whole defensive unit, and he will be able to be used situationally to accentuate his strengths.
On the edge, the Rushmen are even better, due in large part to the return of pass rush extraordinaire Marquis Haynes and the ever-steady Fadol Brown. The 6’3, 220-pound Haynes is known for his speed on the edge, a reputation he started building in his freshman season in 2014. In 2015, Haynes notched 10 sacks and 16 ½ tackles for loss. The sack total is tied with three other players for the most by a Rebel in a season since 1983.
As for Brown, depending on whether his foot injury has healed, he is likely to play inside and outside this fall and is a guy that can rise into first round discussion for the 2017 NFL Draft. He has elite size and strength.
John Youngblood, who dons the 38 jersey as the recipient of the 2016 Chucky Mullins Courage Award, has had a very strong fall camp and will also provide skill necessary leadership at the position. Victor Evans is a candidate to break out and newcomer Charles Wiley could make an early splash, as well, as he is a physical freak.
Recap: The bottom line
Two cornerbacks who can play on an island, check.
Experience and athleticism at linebacker, check.
Capable pass rush and wealth of talented interior defensive linemen, check.
Size and speed at safety, check.
What’s not to like about the 2016 defense on paper? They are incredibly athletic and talented. But if they want to match the success of the unit in 2014, it will be because they stayed healthy at linebacker, stepped up at safety and met or exceeded expectations at corner and defensive line.
Leadership from guys like Conner, Youngblood, Webster, Jones, Brown and Hampton could make all the difference in 2016. There is no way to overestimate the leadership presence in the 2014 group–Prewitt, Elston, Golson, Shackelford and Johnson, to name a few, led the Landsharks on and off the field.
Season-opener could set the tone
Ole Miss starts the season off with a huge test against No. 4 Florida State on September 5 in Orlando at 7:00 p.m. (CT). If the Landshark defense can somewhat contain Dalvin Cook, the Seminoles’ Heisman Trophy candidate running back, and freshman, dual-threat quarterback Deondre Francois, they stand a great chance of matching Wommack’s phenomenal 2014 group.