The early returns on Ole Miss football's defense seem promising. Here's what's different

Nick Suss
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

OXFORD — It's become a yearly tradition at Ole Miss to ask whether this will be the year the Rebels can field a defense competent enough to back up its flashy offense.

The history is what it is. Five straight seasons ranked in the top three in the SEC in total offense, zero winning seasons to show for it. The third-best total offense in the FBS last year paired with the second-worst total defense. A generation of superstar weapons like Evan Engram, A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and Elijah Moore wasted without a winning SEC record.

Like the last five defenses before it, this year's unit is trying to change the history. This spring, there's been reason for optimism on why that can happen.

In two Saturday scrimmages, the first-team defense has only allowed one touchdown in 14 drives. In the second of those scrimmages, the defense forced two turnovers against the first-team offense and returned an interception for a touchdown against the second-team defense.

Combine the first- and second-team units and Ole Miss' defense has allowed two touchdowns in 31 drives the last two weeks.

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Sure, there are concessions that need to be recognized. Quarterback Matt Corral isn't exactly surrounded with his best guys right now. The Rebels were without their top two running backs, their top three receivers, all of their scholarship tight ends and two starting offensive linemen in the most recent scrimmage. 

It's not time to crown this Ole Miss defense as the reincarnation of the 1985 Chicago Bears or the 2000 Baltimore Ravens because they're beating up on Ole Miss' backups.

The encouraging part about this defensive performance has less to do with production and more to do with personnel. This Ole Miss defense has a rare combination of a ton of returning experience and a ton of incoming depth. 

Just look at the three big names in the secondary this spring. The first has been A.J. Finley, the junior safety who led the team in interceptions a year ago and ranked third on the roster in tackles. The second has been Jake Springer, a transfer from Navy who led the Midshipmen in tackles for loss and sacks in 2019 but had to sit out last season. The third has been freshman Tysheem Johnson, a former four-star recruit from Philadelphia starring in the second unit and drawing rave reviews from teammates and coaches alike.

That's the difference about this Ole Miss defense. It checks all three of those boxes just about everywhere.

Want veterans like Finley? How about 10 starters returning from last year's defense, including super seniors like Sam Williams, Lakia Henry and Jaylon Jones cashing in their COVID eligibilities for one last ride. Want battle-ready free-agent additions like Springer? There's Georgia transfer Otis Reese, Canadian transfers Deane Leonard and Tavius Robinson and junior college transfers Jamond Gordon and Isaiah Iton. Want incoming freshmen? Eight freshman defensive backs are already on campus.

Of course, none of this is news. This was all true before spring practice. The value of spring is that so far this glut of bodies seems to be working.

Again, it's easy to write these performances off as a veteran group beating up on an injured offense showing its vanilla game plan as to not give too much away to the spectators.

It's also easy to point to a defense that's consistently generating a pass rush, not allowing big rushing plays and fooling a Heisman Trophy contender like Corral enough times to force turnovers pretty consistently. 

These are returns based off two weeks. If you had to place a bet on how good Ole Miss' defense will be in the fall today, it'd still probably be smarter to use the evidence you saw last fall than the evidence that's been piling up this spring. Rewriting history isn't that easy.

But if spring practice is about evaluating what you have and putting together a plan for the fall, at least the defense is giving the coaching staff a lot to work with over the summer. Whether its old players getting better, new players taking their spots or a combination of the two, there's a case for believing that what you see in the fall will at least be different than what you've seen the last five.

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