Ole Miss football defense 'really can't get no worse,' so here's how it's trying to get better

Nick Suss
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

OXFORD — Senior Ole Miss linebacker Jacquez Jones described the Rebels defense about as bluntly as he can.

"From the defensive point of view, basically, it really can't get no worse," Jones said.

Jones isn't wrong. There were 127 teams that played FBS football last fall. Ole Miss ranked No. 117 in scoring defense, No. 101 in rushing defense, No. 125 in passing defense and No. 126 in total defense. Only two other schools (Utah State and Texas State) ranked 100th or worse in all three categories.

Defense has been holding Ole Miss back for years. The Rebels have ranked bottom three in the SEC in total defense and the bottom four in scoring defense each of the last five years. In 2020, Ole Miss ranked last in the conference in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense and second-worst in passing defense.

The saying "there's nowhere to go but up" fails to acknowledge the possibility that teams can get stuck.

For five years, that's what the Ole Miss defense has done. It's had nowhere to move but upward, but it hasn't so much as budged that direction.

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This spring, Jones and his teammates are making a push to make that happen.

"I feel like we came together the Indiana game," Jones said. "Now we know what the defense can actually do. It's time to build on that during the spring. By the time the season gets here, we'll be clicking on all cylinders."

Ole Miss' 26-20 Outback Bowl win over Indiana was the defense's best performance of 2020 by almost every metric. Fewest yards allowed. Fewest passing yards allowed. Fewest yards allowed per play. Fewest yards allowed per pass attempt. Worst passer rating allowed. Best turnover margin.

Senior linebacker Jacquez Jones reacts at an Ole Miss football spring practice on March 23rd, 2021 at The Manning Center in Oxford, MS.

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 That type of performance breeds confidence for a unit that returns 10 players who started six or more games last year, two players (Jaylon Jones and Tariqious Tisdale) who started four games apiece before season-ending injuries and one player (Otis Reese) who started every game for which he was eligible after being cleared by the NCAA in November. 

Returning depth will be key. Among those returning starters, four are seniors and five others are seniors who could've exhausted their eligibility last season but chose to return for one final year of college.

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But the bigger key might be incoming depth. Ole Miss signed 14 defensive prospects in the 2021 recruiting class, 10 of whom have already enrolled. Plus the Rebels added linebacker Chance Campbell, a graduate transfer from Maryland, and defensive back Deantre Prince, a transfer from Northeast Mississippi Community College who actually played in 12 games and started four for Ole Miss in 2019. 

"Everybody talks about offense. It's the evolution of defense," Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin said. "I think most really good defenses, I bet when you look at it they rotate players. It's hard when you're playing faster offenses. You can't play 80 plays at a high level. Depth is huge, especially (in the secondary) where your mileage is a lot higher because you're running around so much and playing special teams."

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Ole Miss sacrificed depth on defense, especially in the secondary, during its years on recruiting probation. Kiffin and his staff attempted to rectify that in 2021, signing eight defensive backs along with Prince. All have enrolled already and all except one are expected to participate in spring practices. Three-star cornerback Demarko Williams is the exception; Kiffin said he'll miss spring recovering from an injury.

The result of this returning experience plus this infusion of young talent is an overstuffed defense. Kiffin said the priority for the spring is to find the best players at every position then evaluate quality depth.

Unlike previous seasons, Ole Miss shouldn't need to move receivers or running backs to defense just to field a squad. The defense should be able to sustain itself.

Jones said last year's Ole Miss defense struggled to find purpose. He said it took until the bowl game to "get down" the defense. He said there wasn't a standard set for what performance should look like. 

So this January, Jones and a few of his veteran teammates set out to define that standard. Now it's explicitly written out and posted in the locker rooms for all to see. 

Senior defensive lineman Tavius Robinson said this is a defense sick of relying on the offense to win games. That outlook is already breeding change.

"We have a lot more energy, I feel," Robinson said. "We're out here competing. The energy feels different this spring for sure."

Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or nsuss@gannett.com. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.