Mix of returnees and newcomers will bring depth, increased competition to Ole Miss defense
OXFORD, Miss. — This fall in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Ole Miss fans could be treated to something that was not quite the Rebels’ strong suit last year.
That would be “defense.”
In 2020, Ole Miss surrendered more than 500 yards and 38 points per game. Those numbers look to shrink dramatically when the Landshark defense takes the field in 2021.
The unit returns nearly everyone from a season ago, including leading tackler Jacquez Jones who knows the defense has no choice but to improve.
“I mean, as you can see it took us all season to get down the defense. Not having a spring actually hurt a lot. I feel like we came together that Indiana game (in the Outback Bowl). And now we know what the defense can actually do. Now it’s time to just build on it during the spring. And by the time the season gets here, we’re clicking on all cylinders.”
Ole Miss linebacker Jacquez Jones
The defense played its best game of the season in a 26-20 win over Indiana in the Outback Bowl. Ole Miss held the No. 7 Hoosiers to just 369 total yards, with only 201 coming through the air.
Ole Miss was aided in the bowl game by the play of safety Otis Reese. After transferring from Georgia, the NCAA did not clear him to play until the Mississippi State game. The defense will certainly benefit from having Reese in the secondary all season.
Head coach Lane Kiffin believes Reese’s physicality alone can improve the unit.
“(Reese is) a guy that could play a number of spots. You know, he kind of has a frame that could almost play certain spots where outside linebackers play. But he’s a natural safety. So, again, we look to improve a lot on defense.”
Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin
Jones, who had an outstanding season en route to tallying a team-high 75 tackles over nine games, agrees Reese’s versatility will make Ole Miss a formidable defense.
“You’ve got somebody who could play multiple positions, not just safety,” Jones said. “You could see him come down in the box. You could see him go guard a slot. So, I feel like he’s a big contributor to the defense and he’s going to help out a lot.”
Newcomers to DL expected to help immediately
The sheer amount of experience returning on the defensive side of the ball is enough to spur optimism around the Rebels, but there are also couple of newcomers who have everyone’s curiosity piqued.
Ole Miss signed two junior college defensive linemen who were nationally ranked. Isaiah Iton and Jamond Gordon signed in December and both arrived on campus in January.
The 6-4, 295-pound Iton is from Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College, while 6-4, 270-pound Gordon is from East Mississippi Community College.
Iton was the nation’s No. 1 junior college defensive tackle and No. 9 overall JUCO prospect in the country in the 2021 signing class, according to the industry-generated 247Sports Composite index, while Gordon was rated as the No. 2 JUCO defensive tackle and the No. 11 overall junior college player by the Composite.
“I don’t know about the ranking part; I didn’t know that,” Kiffin said about the two standouts. “It sounds pretty good, though. But, you know, they’re out there the first day just swimming, trying to line up. So that’s why it’s great (for them) to be here in the spring. I think junior college kids when they just come in the fall really struggle to have really an impact the first year or so. They both have shown on film to be talented players. That’s why I recruited them.”
Even after just the first day of spring drills, Jones sees another benefit of having two new linemen in the mix.
“It is going to make a huge difference,” the linebacker said.
“It gives the guys a huge rotation. They give the guys a break because it all starts up front and we’re going to need every single one of them. So, I feel like it’s a big deal bringing them in and hopefully, they come in, learn the system and help us out in the fall.”
Gaining depth critical to success in SEC
Gaining much-needed depth is something Kiffin knows is critical to success in the Southeastern Conference.
“I do think that if you’re going to be really good in college football nowadays, you’ve got to have more players,” he explained. “You know, you’ve got to be able to rotate and basically be two-deep in all positions. It used to just be defensive lineman, but now because of tempo, and especially when you’re a tempo team like we are on offense, you play more plays on defense and you’re back out there a lot quicker,” Kiffin continued.
“So, if we’re able to develop two-deep at all our positions where we feel really good about it, we’ll be way better. So, we don’t have guys like last year playing 70, 80 snaps in a game.”
The Ole Miss defense gets to display its improvement Sept. 6 in Atlanta against Louisville.
(Feature image credit of Jacquez Jones courtesy of Ole Miss football)