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Otis Reese, Lakia Henry key players on improved Rebel defense that is readying to take on No. 1 Alabama

Otis Reese, Lakia Henry key players on improved Rebel defense that is readying to take on No. 1 Alabama

OXFORD, Miss. — Ole Miss travels to Tuscaloosa for a matchup against No. 1 Alabama this Saturday. While the Rebels’ offense is the hot topic of most conversations, it is the defensive unit who could prove to be the difference in the game.

Last year, the Ole Miss defense finished No. 118 out of 128 teams in total defense. This year, the Rebels are currently ranked No. 59 in the country. Just how big of an improvement is that? Last year, the Rebels gave up 38.3 points per game, 519 yards per game and 6.7 yards per play.

This year — albeit against non-conference opponents — the Landsharks are surrendering just 20.67 points and 344.7 yards per game and 4.8 yards per play. Regardless of who you’re playing, that is improvement.

Two Rebels playing a critical role in the defense’s rise are linebacker Lakia Henry and safety Otis Reese.

Work in progress

While Henry thinks the defense has improved, the Vidalia, Georgia native also believes there’s a lot more work to be done.

“Really, we’re not where we want to be at all right now,” Henry said. “We have to play a lot better but it’s a good start. I think our defense is getting better and we are going to continue to get better each week.”

The Ole Miss defense is currently ranked ninth in the SEC through three games this season. That is an improvement over the Rebels’ last-place position last season, but with SEC action coming quickly, the unit looks to continue to get better.

Last week Reese talked about what the focus was for the defense during the bye week.

“Just to get better,” said the 6-foot-3, 215-pound safety from Leesburg, Georgia. “Get better on the small things. Getting back to the basics, back to the fundamentals of tackling, getting off blocks, getting the ball out. Getting better in every aspect, getting back to the roots,” Reese explained.

There are always things to get better at. As these games go on, we find things and our coaches find things in film that we need to work on. If we are doing something well that adds more tools to our toolbox and elevates our game.”

Safety Otis Reese

Against Tulane, the Rebels’ defense held the Green Wave to 1-for-11 on third down conversions. Henry talked about the defense’s mentality that allowed the group to get off the field and give the offense the ball.

“Just trusting the defensive scheme.” Henry said. “Our coaches work really hard to put us in good positions. We have to trust what they do, we have to trust each other as teammates and just try to get off the field.”

Playing Bama

A season ago the Rebels lost, 63-48, in a shootout to Alabama in Oxford — and Henry feels the defense could have been the difference in that game.

“We had a really tough time,” the senior began.

We could’ve won the game if the defense got a couple of stops. It was a defensive loss, that’s how I look at it. We have to get stops, they are a great team. We’re a great team too so I feel like if we can get some stops and do our job it’ll be a really good game.

Lakia Henry on last year’s loss to the Tide

As for Reese, in last season’s game against Alabama the transfer was not yet eligible because the NCAA had not given approval. He ultimately was cleared to play the final three games of the season. “It was a crazy game.” he recalled. “It was me, Mark (Robinson) and Jake (Springer), we were in the stands watching it. It was an exciting game. Our guys put up a fight, but we just didn’t come out with a win. This year we are ready, we are excited.”

No moral victories

Although the Rebs played Alabama very close in 2020, there’s not a player on the team who was satisfied with the result.

Reese was asked how much confidence it gives the team with how well they played Alabama in last year’s game.

We didn’t win the game. When you win, you get confident. If you’re a loser, you’re a loser. It’s a whole new year. Like I said I wasn’t playing last year, I wasn’t out there when we lost. I mean we lost the game, but we have confidence (now). We didn’t win the game so you really shouldn’t have too much confidence if you lose a game.”

Otis Reese on last year’s close game vs. Bama

Reese was also asked if while watching last year’s game he felt it might have gone differently had he been on the field.

“Yeah, I’d be lying if I didn’t think that.” Reese confessed. “It was tough watching. Our offense was doing good and the defense struggled at times. Knowing the playmaker that I am, I definitely would’ve been very excited to go out there and help our defense,” he added.

Opportunity Comes Knocking

The entire defensive unit has a chip on its shoulder this season, wanting to show the college football world they have indeed put 2020 behind them.

“It’s a new year,” Reese reiterated.

“I get an opportunity, me, Mark and Jake — the guys that didn’t get to play (last year) — so we’re going to take full advantage of it this year. It’s a blessing. The margin for error is small so when you get opportunities in big time games like this. We have to take advantage of that,” he said. 

The Rebels’ get their opportunity Saturday at 2:30 p.m. (CT) at Bryant-Denny in Tuscaloosa. The game will be televised by CBS.

(Photo credit: Josh McCoy, Ole Miss; Graphic: Nick Filipich, Rebel Walk)

About The Author

Nick Filipich

Nick Filipich was born and raised in Biloxi, MS. He is an Ole Miss senior majoring in Sports and Recreation Administration. A sports junkie with a great passion for all things Ole Miss, Nick played baseball and football in high school — which is where he discovered his love for sports. He is an avid Braves and Saints fan, and in his free time enjoys spending time with family, friends and his black lab, Dixie.

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