- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Ole Miss’ defense is getting back to the roots of it all.
Fundamentals, attitude, a blue-collar work ethic and trying to outwork others will be the foundation of a defense that was a disaster in 2010.
Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said his players took their talents and what those before them did for granted last season. Players strutted around thinking the red carpet was going to roll out for them each game.
It didn’t come close to working that way as the Rebels ranked last in the SEC in scoring defense (35.2 points per game) and 11th in total defense (399.2) and passing defense (246.3). Ole Miss also allowed opponents to score a league-high 95 percent of the time when they ventured into the red zone (27 touchdowns and eight field goals in 37 attempts).
That’s a far cry from the defenses Nix led at Ole Miss in the previous two seasons. Those defenses commanded respect and delivered results. Last year’s defense just struggled to keep its head above water.
This season, Ole Miss is dealing with a slew of younger players on defense. It has been both exciting and tiresome for Nix and his defensive staff, but with days until the Rebels’ tough season-opener against BYU, Nix says he’s happy with where his defense is.
“These kids have really worked hard and are trying to restore some of the respect that was lost last year,” Nix said. “We built this thing up in the first couple of years and earned a lot of respect defensively and we’re going to continue to work toward that.”
In order to do that, this group has had to shovel away its pride and start over. Nix said he’s seen players getting to meetings on time or earlier this time around. Players are holding each other accountable instead of assuming they’ll get it right on the next play.
There is fire and determination in practice, Nix said, and he sees that in his coaching staff as well. Nix said the addition of Keith Burns as the secondary coach has been a major boost for the defense and added that the coaches have become better teachers. They too took past talents for granted.
Senior linebacker Joel Kight agrees: This team thought the past would push it in 2010. He was also wrong, but he also sees a change.
Kight sees more togetherness and trust among players. Youngsters are being vocal, but they are also willing to listen to veterans. Kight is being looked at as a leader, but he’s made sure he hasn’t fallen off in practice or his words will mean zilch to players, especially the young ones -- and there are a lot who will see the field early.
Top-rated linebackers C.J. Johnson and Serderius Bryant are expected make major impacts. So are defensive backs Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson.
While Nix admits no true freshmen are ready to be regular starters, he thinks they’ll contribute a lot, starting with the opener.
Seasoned players will also guide this team. Senior end Kentrell Lockett is back after blowing out his knee last season, providing a tremendous presence in the pass rush. Wayne Dorsey will be assisting opposite, while Marcus Temple will lead a more athletic defensive backfield.
The hope, Kight said, is that everyone doesn't hold back this year.
“They say we have a lot of potential. I don’t really like the word potential,” he said. “I want to see us use that potential. We’re very talented and it’s up to us to be a good overall, all-around defense.”
But there will be plenty of hiccups. It’s hard for a unit to perform an instant 360, and Nix is fine with that. What he won’t tolerate is complacency. For the defense to shake last season’s setback, it will have to rediscover itself and get back to the foundation of football.
“You’re either at the top or at the bottom because everybody sitting in between is just a juggling act,” he said. “Right now, we’re at the bottom of it and we want to finish on top and all we can do is control the present and that’s play the best we can, play as a team and play fundamentally sound. If we do those things I think we’ll be happy with our season this year.”
23hDavid Ching and Edward Aschoff