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Ole Miss defense readying for challenge of containing Louisville QB Malik Cunningham

Ole Miss defense readying for challenge of containing Louisville QB Malik Cunningham

OXFORD, Miss. — Heading into the 2020 season, Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin had no idea what to expect from his defense. After all, Kiffin, along with co-defensive coordinators D.J. Durkin and Chris Partridge, had just implemented their schemes without the benefit of spring drills.

In addition, the Rebels were forced to play an exclusive Southeastern Conference schedule during the COVID pandemic. The result was the Landsharks surrendering 38.3 points and 519 yards per game.

Heading into the Labor Day evening matchup against Louisville, Kiffin has a better idea of what to expect from the his defense.

“I think we’re going to be better on defense, it feels like that,” Kiffin said Tuesday after practice. “I’m kind of excited to finally get through a real game to see where we’re at because you never know. Some years you think you’re better on one side than you end up being or better as a team or worse as a team. It will be exciting to play a quality opponent with really good players and good coaching schemes to see where we’re at.”

Where the defense is at the moment is in a much more comfortable position than it was a season ago.

I think that we do have some young players that have a spring under their belt now. We have some transfers that either barely played or didn’t play at all that would have played a year ago. I think we look better physically, even the same guys look better physically after a whole year in our weight program.

Coach Lane Kiffin 

Several of those younger players were featured in the Rebels’ depth chart that was released Tuesday. Sophomores Cedric Johnson and Isaiah Iton are penciled in to start on the defensive line and they will follow the lead of up to seven seniors who could nab starting assignments.

One of those seniors who will be leading the Landsharks is defensive back Otis Reese. The Leesburg, Ga,, native, will be opening his season about an hour away from his hometown. The Georgia transfer believes this edition of the Ole Miss defense will be successful partly because of how they meld together.

The chemistry with guys understanding the defensive concept, it’s the whole nine yards. Guys playing together, playing fast, it’s going to be real exciting.

DB Otis Reese

Exciting is what the Rebels’ defense intends to be, and it is what Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham is already. The Montgomery, Ala., native threw for 2,617 yards and ran for another 609. All told, he accounted for 27 touchdowns forcing Ole Miss to account for him. Kiffin knows how much pressure the redshirt junior can put on a defense.

Louisville QB Malik Cunningham set a new career-high with 2,615 passing yards in 2020. (Photo: Louisville Athletics)

“Well, a lot, because they throw the ball really well and then takes off and runs,” Kiffin said. “Very challenging to contain him so there’s a lot of challenges with that. In a perfect world you want unathletic quarterbacks to play against, so when you cover people, they can’t bring another dimension.”

In his Cardinals’ career, the redshirt junior has thrown for 5,153 yards and 43 touchdowns and he is second on the Louisville all-time list with 18 rushing touchdowns from the quarterback position.

“He is a very, very, very fast player,” Reese said. “He’s a playmaker, a very good player. We are just ready to go out there and compete on a high level.”

Keeping players fresh is a key to defending a weapon like Cunningham. After several Rebels were limited in preseason camp, Ole Miss is getting healthy just in time for the opener – a fact that has Kiffin breathing a little easier.

“I feel a little bit better than we were at the start (of camp),” Kiffin said. “Some young guys playing and some veterans getting better. We’ll see when it’s a real game. Obviously, the mock game personnel wasn’t real tough on us. I’m excited to get to the game; hopefully play really well, but also see our players play against someone else.”

Game info

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m., in Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the game will be broadcast by ESPN. Rece Davis is scheduled to handle play-by-play duties, with Kirk Herbstreit serving as the color analyst and Molly McGrath will be the sideline reporter. 

About The Author

Steve Barnes

Steve Barnes joins The Rebel Walk staff as a senior writer and brings a trifecta of journalistic experience. As a writer, he has covered college sports for Rivals.com, Football.com and SaturdayDownSouth.com as well as served as a beat writer for various traditional newspapers. He has been a broadcaster for arena football and several national tournament events for the National Junior College Athletic Association as well as hosting various shows on radio. A former sports information director at Albany (Ga.) State University and an assistant at Troy and West Florida, he has helped host many NCAA conference, regional and national events, including serving five years on the media committee of the NCAA Division II World Series. Barnes, a native of Pensacola, Fla., attended Ole Miss in 1983-84, where his first journalism teacher was David Kellum. The duo has come a long way since that time. He will bring a proven journalistic track record, along with a knack for finding the out-of-the-ordinary story angles to The Rebel Walk. Barnes continues to reside in Pensacola a mere ten minutes from the beach because he does have taste and a brain.

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