OXFORD, Miss. – The difficulties of the Ole Miss defense were well-documented in 2016, and this spring the Rebels have been on a mission to improve in all facets of defensive play.
The mission, according to head coach Hugh Freeze, is being accomplished.
“I love the energy of the defense,” Freeze said after Tuesday’s practice. “They’re flying to the football, playing physical. They really bowed their neck. Defensively you’ve got to hold people to field goals (in the red zone). With the offenses in today’s football, they’re going to get down there. You’ve got to hold them to field goals.”
The defense dominated the scripted portion of the Rebels’ red-zone scrimmage on Tuesday. An emerging leader for the unit this spring has been junior defensive tackle Breeland Speaks.
“Breeland’s motor has been unbelievable,” Freeze said. “He’s playing at a level energy-wise and tempo-wise that I could not ask for any more.”
“Breeland’s a great player,” said junior offensive guard Jordan Sims. “I feel like we have one of the better D-lines in the country. Not just me, but the whole offensive line is getting better going against them every day.”
Under new defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff and defensive line coach Freddie Roach, the Rebels have tweaked some of the techniques up front. Speaks and his teammates are in the midst of adjusting.
“The great thing I love about what Freddie is doing is he’s demanding it and he’s going to call them on it,” Freeze said. “I can’t question Breeland’s heart or anything right now, and he knows he’s just got to keep cleaning up his technique.”
“One of the emphases Coach Roach is putting on us is to strike blockers with our hands,” said Speaks. “I feel like it’s coming along. The more we practice, the more I get opportunities to see myself using the technique and doing with it what I will.”
Speaks talked about the tackles playing more squarely against the offensive guard than in previous years and mentioned the maturation of teammates Ross Donelly, Benito Jones, Josiah Coatney, Austrian Robinson and Garrald McDowell in practice.
He was specifically impressed with Robinson.
“Austrian is really coming along. He’s striking guys like I’ve never seen, sometimes better than me.”
The defense must get better than the 2016 results showed, and Speaks says he and his teammates are using last year as motivation.
“You go from being the Landshark defense to people calling you whatever they call you,” Speaks said. “It was bad, and guys hated it. We have all the motivation to get back to that Landshark defense.”
Freeze was pleased to see Donta Evans back on the field giving the linebackers a more physical presence. He also noted that cornerback Jalen Julius has been cleared for non-contact work but will not see contact for the duration of spring practice.
The Rebels are gearing up for the April 8 Regions Bank Grove Bowl, which is set for 11 a.m. Admission is free.