OXFORD, Miss. — In the offseason, Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke brought in defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre to help return the Landshark defense to one of the nation’s best.
Since former defensive coordinator Dave Wommack retired in 2016, the Rebels have struggled mightily. From 2013-2015, the unit was ranked 46th, 38th, and 13th in the country in total defense, while the passing defense was ranked 80th, 36th, and 16th during that same time period. In 2014, the Rebels finished No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense, giving up an average of just 16.0 points per game.
However, these last two seasons have seen some of the worst defensive performances in the history of the program, with the Rebels finishing 110th and 115th in total defense and 56th and 52nd in passing defense.
In all fairness, last season’s passing defense was dealt a blow early on when several key players in the secondary were lost for the season. Jaylon Jones — the best defensive back on the roster and arguably the most important player on that defense — was lost in the season-opening win over Texas Tech.
Starting DB Montrell Custis was lost in the third game of the season against Alabama. By week five, the Rebels had lost their third starting defensive back as C.J. Moore suffered a season-ending tear to his pectoral muscle. For a team already dealing with depth issues due to scholarship reductions, Ole Miss simply could not afford those injuries at defensive back while running a 4-2-5 defense in the SEC.
MacIntyre brings proven record of defensive turnarounds
This year’s Landshark defense should be much improved from last season with Coach MacIntyre at the helm. He spent the spring transitioning the team to a 3-4 defense, and although not the primary reason for the move, it should help shore up some of the depth issues the Rebels had in the secondary last season.
Coach McIntyre has a proven track record of turning around defenses. While he was the DC at Duke, his defenses recorded two of the best statistical seasons ever in Blue Devil history. The American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) named MacIntyre its 2009 FBS Assistant Coach of the Year as the Blue Devil defenses were among Duke’s best statistically over a 20-year span.
MacIntyre has taken defensive backs that were lightly recruited coming out of high school and developed them into NFL defensive backs. While at Colorado, he coached three defensive backs in 2017 who were drafted by the NFL in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th rounds.
Experienced returnees joined by talented newcomers
Ole Miss returns a veteran-laden secondary with seniors Montrell Custis, Myles Hartsfield, Jalen Julius, Vernon Dasher, Armani Linton, and junior Jaylon Jones all back for 2019.
The Rebels also return some experienced underclassmen in Keidron Smith, C.J. Miller, and Kam’ron White.
In December, the Rebels signed two JUCO DB’s in Jonathan Haynes and Jamar Richardson, both out of Jones County Junior College, to help provide some immediate depth at corner and safety. Haynes and Richardson were able to go through spring practices and earn some valuable reps while veteran DBs Jaylon Jones, and Montrell Custis were held out during spring practices due to injuries last fall.
If Jaylon Jones is able to make a full recovery from his offseason knee surgery, one would have to pencil him in for one of the starting cornerback positions this fall.
The other cornerback spot will likely be held by Myles Hartsfield or Keidron Smith. Hartsfield has been asked to play multiple defensive back positions over the years, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he were moved over to one of the safety positions if Smith or JUCO DB signee Richardson can claim that spot.
Redshirt freshman Jakorey Hawkins and true freshman Jalen Jordan both showed in spring practices they have the potential to contribute, and they both could possibly get some minutes this fall.
As for the safety spots, no one really locked down either of the two starting roles during spring ball. If Custis had not been injured early last season, we would imagine he would claim one of the starting spots in fall camp, but due to missing all of spring it is harder to say whether or not he’ll pick back up where he left off last fall.
JUCO DB Haynes, Julius, Dasher, Miller, and White will all be fighting for those starting roles. Sophomores White and Miller each had interceptions during the Grove Bowl back in April. It’ll be interesting to see who’ll step up in fall practice to claim one of the starting spots. Regardless, look for the majority of those veteran players to be used heavily this fall.
While no one expects the 2019 defense to suddenly become one of the best defensive units in college football, do not be shocked to see the passing defense take a step forward under Coach MacIntyre. If Ole Miss can end up with a top 35 passing defense in this new 3-4 defensive scheme, the Rebels will definitely have a much better total defensive unit than in the prior few seasons and the results should be easily visible on the field.