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Previewing Alabama vs. Ole Miss: The Rebel defense

While the Ole Miss offensive may be as explosive as ever, the defense has deteriorated considerably

Southern Illinois v Mississippi
The Rebel defense has struggled so far in stopping lesser offenses than the one Bama fields.
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

There was a time that the Crimson Tide hated playing the Ole Miss Rebels. After decades of utter domination, former Rebels coach Hugh Freeze and his ragtag team of assistants assembled a difficult to beat squad that managed to do what no one else has done in the Saban era of Alabama football: they beat the Tide in consecutive years.

While the explosive offense led by a gunslinging quarterback lit the fuse and launched the fireworks, the Ole Miss defense likewise gave Alabama fits. With a wonky 4-2-5 constant nickel that featured small, fast, athletic linebackers and girthy anchors up front with an elite secondary, the Rebels used what many perceived as weakness to their advantage against the hulking Crimson Tide. The scheme was tricky, the players were tailor-made for their roles, and Alabama had a hard time dominating the Rebel D has they had for decades before.

Now, however, the worm has turned. After the dumpster fire departure of Freeze following an NCAA investigation that nearly hamstrung the program, Ole Miss is a mere shell of what it once was. True, they still pack a mighty offensive punch, a solid passer under center, a nice receiving corps, and a wide-open offense that’s difficult to defend. But the defense which was surprisingly effective in the past has been reeling under second-year coordinator Wesley McGriff, a coaching veteran hired by Freeze before he left to help salvage what former coordinator Dave Wommack had built in Oxford.

McGriff, a veteran coach with more than 25 years of experience in the college and professional ranks, was added to the staff for the 2017 season to reinvigorate the defense after Wommack’s departure. And when he entered the fray, he brought a zephyr of change along with him. Initially, he abandoned the more exotic 4-2-5 constant nickel in favor of the tried and true, vanilla 4-3 defense run by teams from Pop Warner to the pro level. However, that experiment was a failure as the Rebels defense finished in the bottom 25 percent of most defensive measures in 2017. Now, Ole Miss is back in a 4-2-5 scheme, which only makes sense given the talented that was recruited for the system during the Wommack years.

Despite the change back to the familiar Rebel scheme, the results, at least early on in 2018, are not promising. Ole Miss, through the first two weeks, has been the football equivalent of a traffic cone: they’ve been run over by both passing and rushing offenses alike. In the past, the Rebels ceded a little underneath action to the run game to play strong against the pass with all those talented DBs. This year, however, the pass defense has proven to be a liability. Their run defense hasn’t been much better. Their defense hasn’t proven that they can stop the likes of Southern Illinois, so it’s obvious that the explosive Alabama offense shouldn’t have much trouble, right?

Stranger things have happened in Oxford, where the Tide will be playing this weekend. Who knows what Delta voodoo-inspired deals with Old Scratch that the Rebel faithful have made to increase their favor against Alabama? Alabama has already faced a team in Arkansas State that runs a similar nickel defense, and the Tide acquitted themselves well no matter who was under center. Ole Miss may have better athletes (though in reality, after transfer attrition, they may not), but that doesn’t mean they’ll have more success against Alabama than the Red Wolves.

Will the Rebels be able to do the unthinkable and slow the Alabama offensive juggernaut? How can they possibly match up against the talent the Alabama offense puts on the field at any given time? If they do perhaps slow the passing attack, do they have the muscle to keep Bama from just bulling their way through on the ground? Let’s take a closer look…

The Roster

As previously mentioned, Ole Miss has seen some considerable attrition on the defensive side of the ball heading into the season, mostly due to graduation and transfers. After several years that featured NFL caliber talent up front, there are few proven commodities on the front lines of the Rebel defense. As a result, across the board, the Ole Miss defense plays a lot of personnel, as few positions feature consistent starters from week to week while McGriff has taken a platoon approach to staffing.

One of those knowns, however, is excellent junior nose tackle Benito Jones (6-2, 315 pounds). Jones is big, he has great balance, he’s quick off the ball, and he does his job well. In McGriff’s defense, he’ll have to hold point and take on double teams given the relatively light pass rushing end featured by the Rebels. Jones is off to a fast start in 2018, accounting for seven tackles and four quarterback hurries through two games. He’ll be a handful for a Tide offensive line that has struggled in the first two weeks in the middle, and he’ll provide a nice test for center Ross Pierschbacher. Behind Jones is senior Russ Donnelly (6-1, 309 pounds), who has seen his share of playing time already this season. Donnelly has five tackles, a tackle for loss, and half a sack.

The other tackle position is held down by junior Josiah Coatney (6-4, 316 pounds), another big-body with power and push up front. Coatney added substantial weight in the off-season and has played well thus far in 2018 with 11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, half a sack, and a quarterback hurry. He holds his position and creates an obstacle to opposing run games, and he takes on doubles in the middle in the pass rush so the athletic ends can get free. Behind him, is redshirt freshman Sincere David (6-1, 333 pounds), a massive tackle who has yet to record any stats.

At the light end position the Rebels feature a pair of co-starters who are used interchangeably. Senior Victor Evans (6-3, 234 pounds) has trimmed down to increase his speed and agility with the shift back to a 4-2-5. Evans has seen plenty of time as a rotational player in previous seasons, but he and junior Qaadir Sheppard (6-3, 240 pounds) share the edge rushing role at the moment. Evans has nine tackles and two tackles for loss this season, while Sheppard has eight tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a pass broken up, and two quarterback hurries this season. Sophomore Ryder Anderson (6-6, 264 pounds) has also contributed early on with six tackles and two quarterback hurries.

At the heavy end position, junior newcomer Austrian Robinson (6-4, 296 pounds) is the starter, but he shares playing time with sophomore transfer Tariquious Tisdale (6-5, 280 pounds). Both are able edge-setters in run defense and have the mass to be disruptive to the pocket. Robinson has two quarterback hurries on the year, while Tisdale has recorded five tackles, half a sack, and two quarterback hurries.

In a 4-2-5 defense, the linebackers are the most important moving parts because they have multiple roles to play. They fit the run and plug gaps. They bring pressure on blitzes. They drop off into coverage, not just in the flats, but downfield. The linebackers in the 4-2-5 must be talented, because they’re everywhere.

The Mike position, by McGriff’s admission, is critical in his defense. The player must meet the physical and mental attributes required of the role, since he is a primary run-fittter, and the quarterback of the defense who makes the defensive calls. The middle linebacker position this season is filled by as many as four different players led by sophomore Mohamed Sanogo (6-2, 224 pounds), who already has a team-leading 16 tackles to his credit this season with one for a loss. Freshman Jacquez Jones (6-1, 227 pounds) has seen a surprising amount of playing time, as the newcomer has eight tackles, a quarterback hurry, and a forced fumble this season. Junior Detric Bing-Jones (6-1, 254 pounds) is back in the fold this season, and the lumbering linebacker has six tackles this year so far. Rounding out the rotation is redshirt freshman Zikerrion Baker (6-1, 228 pounds), and Baker has made two tackles while playing limited snaps.

Outside linebacker is manned by a true freshman starter in Kevontae Ruggs (6-3, 202 pounds), and though he seems small, the OLB (formerly known in the Ole Miss defense as the “Stinger”) in the 4-2-5 functions almost like a safety so he is appropriately sized for his responsibilities. Ruggs has been phenomenal thus far, earning the starting role ahead of multiple established veterans. When the Rebels want a more physical presence on obvious run downs, they insert junior Willie Hibbler (6-3, 249 pounds) to act as a run game enforcer.

The secondary for the Rebels isn’t as loaded with NFL potential as it has been in recent memory, but there are some solid players on the back end regardless. The corner position features a battery of players that are inserted situationally, with several players getting enough playing time to record stats already this season. The starter at one corner spot is junior Myles Hartfield (5-11, 211 pounds), and Hartsfield has six tackles and two passes broken up this season. When he steps off the field, you’re likely to see true freshman Keidron Jones (6-2, 192 pounds) or junior Jalen Julius (5-10, 187 pounds) offer relief. Both are having solid seasons already, with Jones recording four tackles and an interception and Julius notching five tackles.

At the other corner position is senior Ken Webster (5-11, 201 pounds), a serviceable if not spectacular defensive back with seven tackles and a pass broken up this year. Senior Javien Hamilton (5-10, 177 pounds) backs him up, and Hamilton has five tackles and a tackle for loss so far. Sophomore Jaylen Jones (5-11, 194 pounds) also sees time at corner, and he has acquitted himself well with seven tackles and a pass broken up.

The Rebels field a pair of senior safeties in strong safety Zedrick Woods (5-11, 203 pounds) and free safety C.J. Moore (5-11, 191 pounds). Again, while both are smallish by SEC standards, the two aren’t afraid to lean in on the run, but are intelligent enough to adapt to McGriff’s disguised coverages and blitz packages. Woods has been active, with 14 tackles and a forced fumble this year. Moore is off to a slower start in 2018 with seven tackles and two passes broken up. Another C.J., sophomore C.J. Miller (6-0, 191 pounds) backs up Woods and has four tackles on the year. Redshirt freshman Kam’Ron White (6-2, 210 pounds) spells Moore, and hasn’t put up any stats yet.

Ole Miss is once again depending on the use of (at least) five defensive backs this season, as every defense that hopes to have a chance of stopping modern passing attacks must rely on nickel and dime packages. For the Rebels, the Star defensive back is steady junior Montrell Custis (6-0, 173 pounds). Custis is a play-maker, pure and simple. He flies around the field, is good in coverage, is above average against the run, and he has instincts of a linebacker. So far this season, he has accrued 10 tackles, one tackle for loss, and four passes broken up. When Moore takes a breather, in comes junior Vernon Dasher (6-1, 205 pounds) followed by senior Cameron Ordway (5-11, 189 pounds). Dasher has been active, posting 10 tackles, an interception, and two passes broken up. Ordway has a single tackle on the year.

How Ole Miss will try to stop the Alabama offense

Unlike previous years in which the Tide’s primary offensive weapon was the running game, this year Alabama can throw all over all but a select few teams that they’ll face this season. Ole Miss is not one of those teams, as the Rebels have struggled mightily against far less able passing games this season. Though the season is young and the sample size limited, there’s no reason to believe that this Ole Miss defense will be highly effective against Alabama when they allowed Southern Illinois to score more than 40 last weekend. They also allowed a pretty limited Texas Tech offense that is surprisingly sub-par in the passing game put up nearly 300 yards through the air and another 160 on the ground.

Statistically, the picture is bleak for the Rebels. They rank 125th in total defense after two games, as they’ve given up 557.5 yards of offense per game against Texas Tech and Southern Illinois. That is shocking for a defense that prides itself on being stingy and is likely a symptom of instability in both the program itself and the personnel, as lots of different players are being asked to contribute.

The pass defense has been wretched, as they’ve given up 355 yards per game, good for 126th nationally. That doesn’t bode well for Ole Miss, as Alabama is eighth in touchdowns scored and 10th in average points per game (54). To make matters worse for the Rebels, of Alabama’s 15 touchdowns, only four have come through the Tide’s traditional scoring vector on the ground, with twice as many coming through the air (8). Alabama is seventh in yards gained per pass attempt with 11.2 yards per pass, and Bama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is second in the nation in quarterback rating.

So at least the Rebels should fare well against the run, right? Wrong. They are 107th nationally in rushing defense (they give up 202 yards per game on average), and they’ve looked downright inept against teams that don’t run the ball nearly as well as Alabama. Just because Alabama has gotten the job done with an explosive passing attack early doesn’t mean they still can’t run over any opponent at will, as was evidenced by the performance of sophomore running back Najee Harris last week as he went for over 100 yards despite not starting. Just because Alabama has a newfound fancy for the aerial assault with Tagovailoa under center doesn’t mean they can’t ground and pound an opponent for old times’ sake.

While the line has improved size in the center and true edge-setting ends in Robinson and Tisdale, they still struggle to control the line of scrimmage. They cede ground and have trouble getting off blocks, and their lateral pursuit and athleticism is not what it was in Wommack’s heyday. But it’s not all about the line. Ole Miss’s struggles with the run are even more a function of rough play at linebacker and, to a degree, safety.

Because McGriff uses a lot of disguises to mask his coverages and blitz vectors pre-snap, the linebackers are sometimes caught flat-footed, confused about their roles (or it at least appears that way on tape.) There is hesitation, and the execution is not done aggressively, at speed. One of the benefits of the 4-2-5 defense is that it is a one-gap defense up front: there are no complex reads for the players in the front seven. Everyone has a job, and they attack that job aggressively. The problem is that it seems that Ole Miss is subbing in far too many bodies without letting the best 11 settle into their roles. This breeds hesitation, even for those players who were a part of Wommack’s defenses. When there is hesitation caused by a lack of certainty, it really turns the 4-2-5 system as a whole into a slow-moving, jumbled mess that can be exploited by heady offensive coordinators.

When teams do pass, however, quarterbacks face a confusing pre-snap dance that masks the coverages McGriff will be leveraging on a particular play. The defense is designed to bait offenses into a certain play through formation, only for that scheme to change prior to the snap. For example, one may see the Rebels line up a split safety look pre-snap, only to bring an outside linebacker on the blitz while dropping the safeties into a single-high look once the ball is in play. This puts an extra man in the box in case the quarterback RPOs to a run, even though the initial formation indicated that wouldn’t be the case with two high safeties.

Sometimes the Rebels will line up in a standard front with two safeties in the box to encourage a quarterback to check into a pass and avoid a blitz from the overloaded side of the line. However, at the snap, they’ll drop a safety back into deep coverage, and shift one of the blitzing linebackers back into coverage to seal off the slot after presenting the appearance that the slot would be unmanned. At other times, McGriff will present a six-man blitzing front with two safeties in the box, only to blitz from several unusual angles while the defenders who showed blitz drop off into coverage.

Make no mistake, the 4-2-5 the Rebels run now is not the same as the one that they used in the Freeze era. The way in which McGriff uses blitzes and coverages is novel. While it likely won’t factor too heavily into Alabama’s game plan (given that the Tide should be able to run at will and carve up the secondary with precision passing to the boundary as well as between the hashes), the Rebels are tricky, as previously explained. The system is designed to lull a quarterback into a pre-snap decision, only to then change the scenario, introduce variables, and cause the signal-caller to alter his plan under duress. It can work, but the scheme is heavily dependent on execution at a high level, and players who are well-versed in their particular roles. Otherwise, it becomes a symphony of chaos…not for the offense, but for the defenders themselves. That’s what the Ole Miss defense looks like at the moment.

Alabama can take full advantage if Tua continues to do Tua-type things. There is literally nothing the Rebels can do to stop the execution of Alabama’s passing game. They don’t have the pass rushing horses to disrupt Tagovailoa, and they certainly don’t have the manpower to cover the Tide’s receiving options. The running game can likewise be the crowbar with which the Tide will dispatch the Rebels, make no mistake about that. If Alabama puts together a performance this week that resembles the one against its first two opponents, it won’t matter too terribly much which poison the Rebels pick.

The Result

This game will not hold the mystery and intrigue that has been a fixture of the SEC West battle in previous years. Conversely, this game will be more reflective of the pre-Freeze era, when Ole Miss was a perennial whipping boy to their big brothers from the east. They may still hold a little swagger in the back of their minds, but this contest, this season…it’s a total mismatch, no matter how you look at it.

Alabama is one of the nation’s top offensive teams, and whether they eviscerate Ole Miss on the ground or the air, the results will be the same. Alabama can run at will, and they may. But they also may light up the Ole Miss secondary in a form of karmic payback for those years that the Rebel offense seemed unstoppable in the vertical passing game. If that’s the case, Ole Miss can only hope that Rebel QB Jordan Ta’amu and the offense can find a weak seam in the Bama defense and hold on for the ride.

If Alabama does decide to pass, there will be room in the flats and behind the linebackers for Tagovailoa to exploit, just as previous opponents did in the opening two games for Ole Miss. With the Ole Miss linebackers still struggling to grasp their responsibilities, there will be chances underneath in the flats and in the slot for Alabama’s explosive playmakers Josh Jacobs, Jaylen Waddle, Devonta Smith, Henry Ruggs, and Jerry Jeudy to pile up the YAC with their freakish athleticism. When Mike Locksley uncorks Tua on the deep balls, Bama’s receivers will have a decided physical advantage over the secondary they will be facing. It’s hard to imagine that receivers like the ones the Tide fields won’t make hay while the sun shines, especially in the second half when the Rebel secondary begins to grow weary.

There’s just not a lot of deep analysis to do here. The course is clear. Alabama will run and pass the ball, and they’ll do it with authority. Ole Miss will stand in their way, and they will likely be trampled underfoot. Not much else to forecast, and there’s no reason to believe Locksley and the Tide offense gets overly cute. Let the first-teamers maul the Rebels, and usher in the reserves in the second half. Just another business trip for what is quickly emerging as the best Tide offense in recent memory.