In Lane Kiffin’s first year at Ole Miss, their defense was a total train wreck. Like, 118th in the country, giving up 38 points per game. You might remember that crazy 2020 game where Alabama scored on every single possession against the Rebels and only won by two scores.
Well the last two seasons, Kiffin turned them into a more average defense. Not bad, but not good either. Then in January Alabama’s own defensive coordinator, Pete Golding jumped ship to join Kiffin at Ole Miss, and the Reb’s former defensive coordinator, Chris Partridge, wound up at Michigan as a linebackers coach.
Now, no one truly knows if Golding made the lateral move on his own, or if he was encouraged to find new employment outside of Tuscaloosa. Many fans thought it was the latter, but Saban’s comments last winter made it seem like he didn’t really want Golding to go.
In any case, Golding was a lightning rod for criticism for years for Alabama fans, but brings a level of defense coaching to Ole Miss that they haven’t had. Through three games, they’re allowing all of 16 points per game. They totally dominated the Mercer Bears and pretty well shut down Tulane (though, granted, without the Green Wave’s starting QB). They did struggle a little early against Georgia Tech giving up 307 yards through the air and 167 on the ground, but ultimately held the Jackets to only 23 points.
Schematically, Alabama fans will be very familiar with Golding’s defense. The 3-3-5 hybrid 2-4-5 is now synonymous with Nick Saban’s defense. A nickel corner is built more like a safety, and you’ll see a lot of deep cloud coverages with inside linebacker zone blitzes mixed in fairly regularly.
Along the defensive line, Ole Miss has constantly bolstered through the transfer portal. Preseason 3rd team All-SEC Jared Ivey was a Georgia Tech transfer after 2021 and had 4 sacks for the Rebels last year as a big edge rusher.
On the other end, JJ Pegues returns after getting three sacks as a rotational reserve last year. In 2020-2021, Pegues was a TE for Auburn that got a lot of hype for being a 300lb TE, but he ultimately transferred to Ole Miss and went back to defensive tackle.
Finally, Alabama fans will recognize the Rebel’s starting nose tackle: Stephon Wynn. After Spending four years at Alabama, Wynn transferred to Nebraska for 2022, and now has made it to Ole Miss as a 6th year senior.
It’s not a star-studded group, but it is a veteran one, for what it’s worth. And they’re holding their opponents to 3 yards per carry with a couple of sacks between the trio.
At linebacker? All four starters are also seniors, three of which are graduate transfers. Edge rusher Isaac Ukwu had 16 sacks in three years for James Madison, and now leads the Rebels with 3 tackles for loss.
Monty Montgomery was part of the 2017 recruiting class and is somehow still in college after playing at Tulane, transferring to Hutchinson C.C., playing four years at Louisville, and is now at Ole Miss. And he’s flanked by UCF 5th year senior transfer, Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste.
Finally, edge rusher Cedric Johnson is the only homegrown player of the entire starting front 7. The senior has 14.5 sacks for Ole Miss in his career, and was named a Preseason All-SEC first team by Phil Steele.
In the secondary, it’s pretty much the same story. Junior safety Trey Washington has played for the Rebels the last two years as a special teams and rotational piece, but now steps into a full time role. And after him? 4 senior transfer portal guys. Jaijahn Anthony was a two year starter at Liberty and now has 5 passes defended and an interception. Nickel corner John Saunders came over from Miami Ohio, and 6’3” senior outside corner Zamari Walto was a 4-year starter at cornerback for Georgia Tech.
Finally, outside corner Deantre Prince was a C.C. transfer a couple of years ago and started all of 2022 as a senior for Ole Miss, and is now using his Covid senior year.
With all of that said.... Ole Miss has a defense mostly devoid of big names, but one that is a mercenary band of veterans that Lane Kiffin has assembled through the transfer portal. And pretty much all of their backups are veteran transfers as well.
It’s tough to really project how that will look through the course of the season, so I’m not particularly certain on what to think it will look like against Alabama this weekend.
For the Tide, Jalen Milroe is now the unquestioned starter at QB, and now Tommy Rees needs to have a good gameplan to combat the Pete Golding scheme. Alabama should focus on interior running more than rushing to the edges, using running back wheel routes to catch the backside of the cloud coverage concepts, and trying to isolate receivers going deep on safeties by using smash concepts to keep the outside corners busy on short routes.
Milroe will need to watch out for the middle linebacker blitzes on third downs and the slot corner blitzes throughout the game.
Honestly, I’m not really going to try to predict this one. I have no idea what the Ole Miss defense is going to be. They’re all new players and have only played a smattering of weak teams so far. And Alabama’s offense is a total enigma at this point. I think it’ll be frustrating for fans of both teams in different ways, and Alabama winds up scoring about 28 points on the backs of a whole bunch of QB scrambles.