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October 10, 2013

Defensive issues may mean problems for Ole Miss

Texas A&M's closest call last season was its 30-27 win over Ole Miss on a rainy, chilly night in Oxford. The Rebels' defense played one of its best games of the season in forcing six turnovers including three interceptions by Johnny Manziel. Ole Miss used multiple fronts and looks, at times having defenders stand up along the line of scrimmage with some rushing and some dropping back and the Aggies never exactly who was coming. In addition, the Rebels put smaller defenders on the field to hit gaps and chase Manziel nearer the line of scrimmage and before he could get going outside the pocket where is so dangerous. Even though the strategy was inventive and took advantage of A&M's early season reluctance to run the football, it still was all for naught.

Ole Miss was young and woefully undersized last year on defense which was the primary reason for the different alignments, stunts, and fronts. They've gotten bigger and more experienced this season but not by much. They still use a 4-2-5 look for the most part although they will shift into a three man front (mostly in passing situations). They've been hit by injuries and they also play a variety of people (four defensive tackles see time in their rotation) to keep people fresh. They take chances and blitz due to their lack of size. They mix their coverages in the secondary and play man, two deep, and three deep looks. Due to their lack of size up front, they rank 12th in the Southeastern Conference in rushing defense and four of their top five tacklers are defensive backs.

At defensive tackle, Issac Gross, Carlton Martin, Byron Bennett, and Woodrow Hamilton all split time there with Gross getting most of the snaps. Martin, Bennett, and Hamilton are all in the 290 to 295 pound range but Gross is only 250 pounds. They'll play him at nosetackle in a three man front and due to the lack of size he struggles to get off of blocks when centers get their hands on him. When he gets penetration, he can be successful as he has two tackles for loss and a sack and can be a run down player. They'll play Bennett as a defensive end in their three man front.

The headliner on defense is former five star freshman Robert Nkemdiche who offers size and athleticism at 290 plus pounds. Like most freshmen, he struggles primarily with technique (attacks the man and not the gap) and stamina but has good get off, can hold up at the point of attack, and leads the Rebels with four tackles for loss. Cameron Whigham can play down as an end or as an inside linebacker. Ole Miss has had a number of injuries this year at the position, most notably rush end C.J. Johnson
Without Johnson, they lack an elite pass rusher like A&M and only have five sacks on the year.

Mike Marry starts at Mike and at 250 pounds he is one of the few people in the regular rotation that has the size to hold up at the point of attack in the front seven. Sedarious Bryant is only 5 foot 9 but is by far their most effective player at shooting gaps (five tackles for loss) and leads the team in tackles. However, he has difficulty if he plays unprotected.
Denzel Nkemdiche (Robert's older brother is only about 205 pounds and makes tackles down the field unlike Bryant. They'll play Nkemdiche and Bryant together (Bryant at the Mike) and just hope they can run around and make plays.

The Rebels normally play five defensive backs with Trae Elston at the nickel, Tony Connor at strong safety, and Cody Prewitt at free safety. Connor and Prewitt have good size (both in the 210 to 220 pound range) and they have to because they see a lot of people coming downhill at them. Prewitt is a good centefielder who can make plays in coverage. Elston is more of an in the box player similar to Tony Hurd…a solid tackler and cover guy in the short zones. He's not a great cover guy down the field and they'll roll all of them into the box. Corners Mike Hilton and Senquez Golson are both under 5 foot 10 and can tackle but struggle with bigger receivers. Golson usually covers the opponent's number one receiver. True freshman Derrick Jones is 6 foot 3 and might wind up with more playing time versus Mike Evans. Either way, you'll likely to see more zone coverage like A&M faced versus SMU and Arkansas.

Last year, Ole Miss used a spy versus A&M and parlayed their multiple fronts and speed into six turnovers. However, this year the Rebels haven't been able to force turnovers or stop the run due to their size. At times, it's almost like they put 11 people out there, move them around, and just ask them to run to the ball. Given a maturing Johnny Manziel who can get A&M in the right play and protect the ball, a repeat of last year's turnover fest is unlikely. In addition, it's hard to spy Manziel now because A&M is better equipped to run the ball right at defenses that do employ one.

Most importantly, the Aggies simply lined up against Arkansas and pushed them around all over the field in the run game in the second half. If Mike Matthews can handle Gross in the middle, expect a repeat and probably even an improvement on that performance and another 45 plus point night against an undersized and banged up defense that is out of ideas of how to deal with the Aggies.

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