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Ole Miss defense should be better off after injury-filled 2015

A few days before last week’s Allstate Sugar Bowl, Ole Miss defensive end John Youngblood recalled a conversation between Rebels defensive linemen early in bowl practice.

Surveying the players in attendance, senior Issac Gross -- one of numerous Ole Miss defenders who dealt with injuries this season -- made note of how many familiar faces were missing.

“He was looking around and he was like, ‘Dang, who are we missing?’” Youngblood said with a chuckle. “Fadol [Brown], Robert [Nkemdiche], Herb [Moore], Isaac, the list goes on and on and on about how many defensive linemen we’re missing. But some guys really have had to step up and make plays, which is good because you then have experience for next year and potential for if guys leave.”

As Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said of injuries last week, “It’s kind of been one of those years” for the Rebels -- a curse during the season while the coaches regularly juggled their lineup, but potentially a blessing moving forward. Youngblood is correct that the injury absences created opportunities for young players who will be better prepared for bigger roles in 2016.

One example is redshirt freshman defensive tackle Breeland Speaks. When All-SEC honoree Nkemdiche was out with a concussion at midseason and missed the Sugar Bowl on suspension, Speaks and junior college transfer D.J. Jones took over much of his playing time.

They combined for seven tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack and a fumble recovery in the 48-20 rout of Oklahoma State -- and Ole Miss fans should be excited about the line’s potential up front next season with Gross, Moore and Brown all set to return, even while junior Nkemdiche opted to make the leap to the NFL.

This will be a big offseason for Speaks, who has the potential to play a Nkemdiche-like role.

“I think he’s a real force. I think he’s special,” Wommack said. “He can do some things that Robert can’t do and vice versa. I think it’s an experience thing. He doesn’t have nearly as many reps as Robert, but he is extremely athletic.”

Speaking of defensive forces, the Rebels will also get back one of their most important injured players next season.

Junior defensive back Tony Conner suffered a knee injury in the upset win against Alabama that limited him to just five games in 2015, but he will return to lead the secondary next fall. Although the Rebels lose seniors Trae Elston, Mike Hilton -- both All-SEC honorees -- and Chief Brown, the secondary still returns Kendarius Webster, Tony Bridges and C.J. Hampton. Plus they’ll return a playmaking threat that they were lacking when Conner was out of the lineup.

“You kind of saw we could have really used him at Florida [a 38-10 Ole Miss loss],” Youngblood said. “They really hurt us on the outside game with bubble screens and whatnot. I feel like if Tony would have been there, he would have made a lot of those plays just because he’s a playmaker.”

The three senior defensive backs were among six Ole Miss seniors who started in the Sugar Bowl, joined by linebacker C.J. Johnson, nose tackle Woodrow Hamilton and defensive end Channing Ward. And yet Wommack’s defense still returns plenty of talent -- sophomore defensive end Marquis Haynes (16.5 TFLs, 10 sacks) deserves mention here -- with more on the way in what is shaping up as a whale of a 2016 recruiting class.

Wommack’s having to scramble at times to piece together lineups will benefit the Rebels now, too.

“When I look back from the guys that started the season for us, half of them are gone,” Wommack said last week. “Five of the starters. ... Those are five guys that we don’t have here at the end of the season. But it’s not like some of these guys behind them aren’t really good players.”

They are, and they will be better prepared to compete for starting jobs this spring because injuries created the necessity for them to play in 2015.

“We’ve got a lot of depth that can really come in and keep our momentum going and guys that can really go make plays for us,” Hilton said. “We didn’t look at [injuries] as a downer or anything. It’s just next man up and they have their opportunity now.”