HOOVER, Ala. – Since the end of the 2016 season, Ole Miss junior defensive tackle Breeland Speaks has worked with a laser-like focus in anticipation of the upcoming season.
He watched his Rebels end last year with a 5-7 record and, for the first time under head coach Hugh Freeze, no bowl game. But that is not distracting Speaks and his teammates from the season in front of them; in fact, it is motivating them even more.
Speaks says he witnessed a lot of growth in his teammates this off-season, and that he, himself, matured, as he realized he must be a leader for a defensive line that no longer boasts players such as D.J. Jones, Issac Gross, John Youngblood, and Fadol Brown staring down the opponent’s quarterback.
Since the arrival of new defensive line coach Freddie Roach, the unit has worked out by itself two days a week, preparing to be a more formidable group upfront.
“Guys just want to work right now,” Speaks said.
“The off-season has been great. Guys have been working, putting in extra work in the weight room, on the field, in the training room. Guys want to make sure their bodies feel good going into this season.”
Heading into this year, the Rebels have the opportunity to play without some of the pressure of seasons past. As a result of the NCAA investigation, Ole Miss self-imposed a one-year bowl ban, meaning, among other things, that Speaks and the defense can pin their ears back and play a little looser. Even Coach Freeze suggested last week at SEC Media Days that he may “go for it on fourth down a little more” since the circumstances this season will be different.
After the conclusion of Media Days, media members predicted the order finish for this coming season. Georgia is picked to win the SEC East, while the Crimson Tide is favored, once again, to come out of the West, as well as win the SEC Championship game over the Bulldogs. The Rebels didn’t receive much love from the media as they were picked to finish last in the SEC West.
That will serve as even more motivation for Speaks and Ole Miss.
The Rebels will play their first two games of the 2017 season at home—South Alabama and UT-Martin—before traveling to California, Alabama, and Auburn. Following that road stretch, the Rebels play three home games, taking on Vanderbilt, LSU, and Arkansas—three teams Ole Miss lost to last season on the road.
Rebels eager to play spoiler
While those outside of Oxford may be counting the Rebels out, Speaks says the Rebels are preparing to be the spoiler in the conference, defeating other teams who have a lot to lose.
“That’s definitely our motive this season,” Speaks said.
“‘If we aren’t going, you’re not either;’ that’s our motive. That’s basically what coach Freeze has instilled in us. If that’s what our head coach wants, then we need to give it to him.”
In order to play the role of spoiler, the Ole Miss defense needs to step up this year. While the unit struggled at times to stop the run last season, Speaks believes they are up to the challenge and says he will do all he can to lead the defensive resurgence. As one of the main leaders on defense, he is impressing upon the young players, like sophomore cornerback Jaylon Jones and freshman linebacker Breon Dixon, the importance of reading their assignments and being in position on every single snap.
“I let those guys know, ‘Y’all got some big shoes to fill at the end of the day, and I need y’all to be there.’ I need that job done, and I feel like they understand that and at the end of the day, they will get the job done.”
(Feature image credit: Joshua McCoy, Ole Miss Athletics)