OXFORD, Miss. – Before Ole Miss' football team opened spring practice, the defensive line huddled to make one thing clear about its role in 2016.
“We have to be the leaders of this program,” sophomore defensive tackle Breeland Speaks told ESPN.com earlier this month.
Pretty cut and dry. Pretty accurate.
On a team that returns arguably the SEC’s best quarterback from last year in record-breaking first-year starter Chad Kelly, the foundation of leadership -- and performance -- for this team will come from the big guys who aim to make Kelly miserable in practice.
This wasn’t a coaching challenge, either. This was something the linemen themselves decided shortly after the end of Ole Miss' 2015 season. They looked at the pieces coming back and realized that with the numbers they had and the talent ready to burst within the group that this was going to be the heart of a team looking to make its first-ever trip to the SEC championship game in Atlanta.
It’s a group filled with in-game troublemakers and depth that most SEC teams would drool over. While only two starters return -- ends Fadol Brown and Marquis Haynes -- Ole Miss has 10 lettermen coming back and this spring welcomed ESPN 300 members Benito Jones (five-star DT) and Charles Wiley (four-star DE).
Even with Brown out this spring (foot) and defensive tackles Issac Gross (neck) and Herbert Moore (ACL) limited, Ole Miss’ defensive line had a solid spring with a ton of quality rotation, Speaks said. With the freshmen getting on campus and making early positive impacts, he believes Ole Miss could be three-deep at each defensive line spot with little drop-off.
“We have every tool to be great,” senior tackle D.J. Jones said of the defensive line. “Every guy has his own kind of game.”
It’s not just pure football talent.
“Everyone can run; that’s what’s freakish,” Jones added.
“The athleticism is nasty,” Speaks said.
Speaks and Jones, two pillars of mass equipped with speed and quickness, will anchor the middle, along with the veteran Gross, who has 27.5 career tackles for loss. Brown and Haynes will have help outside, but Haynes has All-America potential with his 17.5 sacks in two seasons.
Thanks to impeccable recruiting and coaching, Ole Miss' staff has the makings of an incredibly dangerous defensive line, even without monster in the middle Robert Nkemdiche.
In all honesty, this group isn’t worried about losing the All-American. It managed without him twice (both wins) last season and feels the depth, talent and trust this line possesses will be more than enough to survive a season post-Nkemdiche.
“Not to say that we didn’t want him, but we didn’t need him,” said Speaks, who has taken Nkemdiche's tackle spot.
That’s not a swipe at Nkemdiche, either. Despite the unceremonious exit from Nkemdiche, his former teammates still respect him and his talent. But they’re ready to move on and flourish without him, especially Speaks, who feels he pushes to the ball more than Nkemdiche did. That -- and his more sideline-to-sideline play he picked up as a linebacker in high school -- should give him more range in Nkemdiche's spot, Speaks said.
“I want to supersede that,” said Speaks, who started in place of Nkemdiche twice and finished the season with 5.5 tackles for loss and a sack. “I want to show people I can play ball just as well as he can.”
But he won’t be alone. Jones said this entire defensive line is out to prove it doesn’t need Nkemdiche to be great.
“Marquis has the speed, you can come to me for power,” said Jones, who had four sacks last season. “Then, all of a sudden he has the power and I can finesse you with the speed.”
Speaks weaves his 313-pound frame through cracks, pushing plays to teammates, while Gross can overpower with his handwork. Evans has good size (6-foot-3, 238 pounds) and strength behind Haynes, and McDowell’s 240-pound frame helps plug any possible gaps outside.
Haynes calls the freshmen, who have the physical tools and are gaining on the mental side, a “key, significant part of our D-Line” that opens the the defensive scheme up and allowed coordinator Dave Wommack to add more formations for the line, which has created a more “exotic defense” for the Rebels.
“Those guys are supposed to be going to prom, and they’re already beating SEC left tackles,” Speaks said.
Ole Miss' defensive line believes it’s miles ahead of last year’s group, as experience, youth, talent, and numbers have combined to create more continuity and unity. Or, as this line likes to think of it, mayhem.
“This spring,” Haynes said with a smile, “we decided we want to be the best defensive line in the country.”