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Veteran Ole Miss safety AJ Finley Focused on Defense Continuing to Improve Every Day

Veteran Ole Miss safety AJ Finley Focused on Defense Continuing to Improve Every Day

OXFORD, Miss. — Of Ole Miss’ top 12 tacklers from last season, only five remain. But fortunately for the Rebels, one of those returning is safety AJ Finley who finished third on the team in tackles in 2021 with 90, behind only Chance Campbell (109) and Mark Robinson (92).

Defensive turnaround

Finley has been an integral part of a defensive unit that made a remarkable turnaround last season, one that resulted in the Rebels’ first 10-win regular season in school history.

After allowing an SEC-worst 38.3 points per game in 2020, the Ole Miss defense allowed just 24.7 points per game in 2021, an astounding 13.6 points per game improvement.

That marked the second-biggest turnaround of any Power 5 team last year, behind only Michigan (the Big Ten champion). It was also the biggest turnaround from one year to the next of any SEC team since 2012.

But even after that dramatic improvement, AJ says the defense won’t be satisfied resting on its laurels.

“I feel like the goal of this season is to build on what we did last year and not take any steps back,” he explained.

One of the things we are focusing on is just improving every day and not being satisfied with what we did last year – just to improve even more.”

Ole Miss safety AJ Finley

‘It’s just a family thing in Oxford’

The leading returning tackler on the team, Finley will be joined by many newcomers on both sides of the ball. We asked him for the advice he would give a player going through the recruiting process.

“I just feel like one of the main things you have to do is go to a place where it feels like home to you and to whatever school puts you in the best situation to get to where you want to be,” he said.

That feeling of home played an integral part in AJ’s own decision back in 2019 to come to Oxford.

I think one of the main things that drew me to Ole Miss was the people. I feel like everybody says that, but it’s really true that the people in Oxford are just so nice and it’s just a family thing in Oxford.

AJ Finley on why he chose Ole Miss

Finley also understood he would have the opportunity to play earlier at Ole Miss than he perhaps might at some other schools that had more defensive depth.

“I knew that I was going to get a chance to play early,” he said, “and that’s one of the main things that I wanted when I was looking for a school. So the people here in Oxford and the opportunity to play early were the two things that got me to come here.”

He did indeed get the opportunity to play early.

Key contributor to Ole Miss defensive improvement

As a member of the 2019 signing class, Finley saw action in all 12 games as both a defensive back and on special teams during his true freshman campaign.

As a sophomore in the 2020 COVID season where the Rebels played only SEC opponents, Finley participated in all 10 games with nine starts at free safety. He finished fourth on the team with 62 total tackles, including two tackles for loss and led the team with three interceptions. He also had a team-high seven pass breakups.

This past season, Finley notched seven pass deflections and tallied three interceptions — one of which was a pick six against A&M — to go along with his 90 tackles.

We asked Finley if he is proud of the team’s defensive improvement from his first arrival. “When I came here, my freshman year, it was pretty tough,” he said.

So being a part of like the turnaround of this whole program, honestly it has been pretty cool to be a part of.

AJ Finley

Finley on the newcomers: ‘The chemistry has been great’

Head coach Lane Kiffin and staff have owned the transfer portal, currently sitting ranked No. 1 in the country for the 2022 transfer class. AJ has a front-row view of how these newcomers are doing.

“I feel like all the transfers have honestly come in and made an immediate impact, all the way from the D-line to the secondary,” Finley said. “J.J. Pegues and Ladarius Tennison have been doing well. I mean, all of the transfers have really made an immediate impact and that’s really good to see.”

We asked Finley if it might be hard acclimating so many new players in to the team.

“I would just say for the main thing, it’s really just them getting to learn the scheme is probably the biggest part of it,” Finley began.

“So I feel like once the first few weeks, the first few days, it was kind of tough because they didn’t know really what they had to do. But now that they know the scheme more than they knew at the beginning, it’s been pretty easy. Honestly, the chemistry’s been great,” he added.

Spring Game

Fans will get a chance to see the chemistry of the new-look Rebels today at noon in the annual Grove Bowl spring game. They’ll also get the chance to see veterans like A.J. Finley who are ready to give it all they’ve got!

Hotty Toddy!

(Feature image credit: Josh McCoy, Ole Miss)

Evelyn Van Pelt
Evelyn Van Pelt

Evelyn has covered sports for over two decades, beginning her journalism career as a sports writer for a newspaper in Austin, Texas. She attended Texas A&M and majored in English. Evelyn’s love for Ole Miss began when her daughter Katie attended the university on a volleyball scholarship. Evelyn created the Rebel Walk in 2013 and has served as publisher and managing editor since its inception.

About The Author

Evelyn Van Pelt

Evelyn has covered sports for over two decades, beginning her journalism career as a sports writer for a newspaper in Austin, Texas. She attended Texas A&M and majored in English. Evelyn's love for Ole Miss began when her daughter Katie attended the university on a volleyball scholarship. Evelyn created the Rebel Walk in 2013 and has served as publisher and managing editor since its inception.

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