The 2014 Ole Miss Rebels completed one of the best seasons the program has seen in decades, posting nine wins and climbing as high as No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings and No. 3 in the AP Top 25.
Much of that success came as the result of one of the nation’s best defenses. The Rebels allowed just 16 points per game in 2014, which led the nation. During the poll-climbing 7-0 start to the season, Ole Miss allowed just 10.6 points per contest, and in the first loss of the year, the Rebels gave up just 10 points to LSU in Tiger Stadium.
The Landshark defense ranked in the top five in the SEC and top 30 nationally in every major defensive statistical category. The Rebels allowed 329 yards per game, which was the fourth best mark in the conference and No. 13 in the country. Opponents gained 136.9 yards on the ground (No. 5 in the SEC, No. 29 nationally) and 192.1 through the air (No. 3 in the SEC, No. 16 nationally). Four separate opponents failed to gain even 200 total yards.
Ole Miss was great defensively, but can the Rebels overcome the departure of five key players to match — or possibly even improve — that performance in 2015?
The 2014 Landsharks were led by a handful of veteran seniors, including linebackers D.T. Shackelford and Serderius Bryant, both of whom recorded 65 total tackles last season, which tied for third on the team. Shackelford, who spent six seasons with the Rebels as the result of two ACL surgeries and earned numerous accolades for his impact in the community as well as his play on the field, recorded five tackles for a loss, two sacks, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble last year. Bryant added eight TFLs, one sack and an interception.
Even more notable is the loss of defensive backs Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt, both of whom earned All-American honors. Opponents tried to pick on the 5-foot-9 Golson and he made them pay with 10 interceptions and eight pass breakups in 2014. Golson added 43 total tackles, including three tackles for a loss, and half a sack and was a second-round pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Prewitt, a ball-hawking safety who was an All-American in 2013, started all 13 games last season and made 64 tackles, four tackles for a loss, three interceptions, two pass breakups, one forced fumble and one recovered fumble. Also, defensive tackle Byron Bennett made six starts for the Rebels last year and finished with 19 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, two sacks and two pass breakups.
All five players appeared in each of the Rebels’ 13 games last season and combined to start 41 games in 2014. During their careers in Oxford, the five defenders appeared in a combined 247 games for the Rebels and started 143.
That’s a lot of experience to replace heading into the 2015 season, but there is reason to be optimistic. Ole Miss has seven returning starters, including a handful of elite players, plus three great recruiting classes have boosted the overall talent that remains on the roster and created depth that will help the Rebels overcome those five key losses.
Recruiting to the Rescue
Simply, Ole Miss can be better defensively in 2015, and the most important reason is that the team has more talent and more depth than it did a year ago — and the year before that, and the year before that.
Head coach Hugh Freeze has now signed three consecutive recruiting classes ranked among the top 15 in the nation. The first of those brought elite talent like defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche and hybrid safety/linebacker Tony Conner to Oxford, both of whom are potential first-round NFL Draft picks. Obviously such pro-level players raise the Rebels’ overall talent level, but just as important is that Freeze’s recruiting has given Ole Miss more depth throughout the roster, which will help the defense to replace the departed impact performers.
The Rebels have also had success recruiting junior college players and picking up transfers from other programs. The two most important newcomers this year are Tony Bridges and Tee Shepard. Bridges was the nation’s highest rated junior college defensive back in the most recent class, and at 6-foot and 183 pounds he has the size Golson lacked in order to match up with bigger SEC receivers. He’s also got terrific ball skills and has reportedly been terrorizing Ole Miss quarterbacks on the practice field this fall.
On the opposite side, Shepard is finally healthy after signing in 2014 but missing the entire campaign with a toe injury. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound junior is a former Notre Dame signee and was the top-rated JUCO transfer in 2014. Before the injury last year, Shepard was expected to start.
Both Bridges and Shepard should give the Rebels a more physical presence on the outside. Because of their size and physicality, opposing quarterbacks won’t often try to pick on either player. Neither is likely to pick off double-digit passes in 2015, but their coverage ability will allow the defensive front seven more time to get after the quarterback, which should result in more sacks and potentially more fumbles. And of course, depth is just as good as it was last year with Kendarius Webster, Kailo Moore and Mike Hilton (who is moving to safety) if needed.
Freeze and his staff have also found a few diamonds in the rough. For example, under-the-radar 2014 signee Marquis Haynes led the Landsharks with 7.5 sacks last season and earned Freshman All-American honors as a result. Haynes has proven to be more talented than his recruiting rankings coming out of Jacksonville, Fla., but he’s still not guaranteed to start this year. Haynes is competing with returning starter Fadol Brown (a transfer from FIU) at defensive end, as well as redshirt freshmen Breeland Speaks and Victor Evans, who are all expected to contribute in the defensive line rotation.
At defensive tackle, Issac Gross may be unheralded and undersized (6-1, 240), but he played well enough tol supplant Bennett in the starting lineup midway through last season. He’ll compete to start at nose tackle with strong 310-pound JUCO transfer D.J. Jones.
Promote From Within
Bryant and Shackelford were the two starting linebackers last season in defensive coordinator Dave Wommack’s base 4-2-5 defense. They’ll be missed, but the two players expected to replace them are both talented and experienced and capable of an even bigger impact on the field.
C.J. Johnson started 12 games for the Rebels as a defensive end last season, which brought his career total to 29 starts in 41 games. Long one of the Rebels’ top pass rushers — he led the Rebels with 6.5 sacks in 2012 and had four last season — and team leaders, Johnson will move into the middle linebacker spot in 2015.
Denzel Nkemdiche is expected to slide back into the starting lineup beside Johnson, as he has been plagued by injury and discipline issues over the past few seasons. Nkemdiche is also undersized by prototypical linebacker standards. However, when Nkemdiche is on the field, all he does is produce.
In 2012, the 5-foot-11, 212-pound Georgia native earned Freshman All-American honors with 82 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, three sacks, three interceptions, four forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He’s only played in 17 games over the past two seasons, including four starts last season before injury struck, but Nkemdiche has the ability to recapture the magic that made him a star as a freshman.
In the secondary, versatile senior Hilton is moving from cornerback to rover. The Chucky Mullins award winner started every game last season and led the Rebels with 71 tackles. He also picked off three passes. Hilton’s move allows Trae Elston to take over for Prewitt at free safety. Elston has been a fixture in the defensive backfield for three seasons already and should provide a smooth transition. The safety positions are even deeper in 2015 thanks to the return of Chief Brown, who was injured all of last season, as well as sophomores C.J. Hampton and C.J. Moore, both of whom saw action in all 13 games last season.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen's work on college football can also be found on SaturdayBlitz.com and FanSided.com. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.