Move over, Landsharks. There’s another nickname making its way around Ole Miss’ locker room.
“We actually call ourselves the ‘Jack Boys,’” Rebels cornerback Mike Hilton said. “Anything that’s around us, we’ve gotta take it.”
The “we” in that sentence is the Ole Miss secondary, which has quickly become one of the most disruptive units in college football. The back-end of that defense “jacks” -- that is, intercepts -- passes more than any team in the country. The Rebels had an FBS-leading 17 interceptions entering Week 10 -- Louisville moved into the lead with three picks Thursday night -- four more than Ole Miss grabbed in all of 2013. Senior cornerback Senquez Golson's eight picks also led the nation heading into the week before the Cardinals' Gerod Holliman pulled ahead. The Jack Boys are jacking up SEC offenses week in and week out.
Of course, the Rebels’ entire “Landshark” defense is chomping down on the league this year, too. Ole Miss has allowed only 10.5 points per game, No. 1 nationally. That number will be tested Saturday when two of the College Football Playoff selection committee’s top four teams meet as No. 3 Auburn travels to Oxford, Miss., home of the No. 4 Rebels. The Tigers will be a new challenge for the Jack Boys, who’ve yet to face a dual threat like quarterback Nick Marshall.
Ole Miss’ success in the secondary actually starts up front, said Jason Jones, Ole Miss co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach. “A lot of teams struggle to protect with the guys that we have rushing the passer,” Jones said. “A lot of times when the quarterback’s throwing, he’s throwing off his back foot or has guys in his face. We’re fortunate back there to be able to intercept it.”
The secondary’s domination extends beyond takeaways. Ole Miss ranks second in the SEC in pass efficiency defense (97.7 rating), a category in which it ranked fourth last year (120.9). The Rebels’ defense allows only 5.6 yards per pass attempt, second-fewest in the league behind LSU (5.5), and has given up only four passing touchdowns this year. That number leads the SEC.
But it’s the turnovers that have given the Jack Boys their name. All four starters in the secondary have claimed at least one interception. Prewitt, an All-America candidate at safety, turned one of his picks into a 75-yard touchdown return in Ole Miss’ 35-20 win at Texas A&M. Cornerback Cliff Coleman returned an interception 29 yards for a score in a 41-3 rout of Vanderbilt.
Nothing compares to Golson’s interception against Alabama, however. He picked off quarterback Blake Sims in the end zone as the Crimson Tide drove for a potential winning touchdown with 37 seconds remaining. Golson’s takeaway secured a 23-17 Ole Miss victory and guaranteed an extended party in The Grove.
“We’ve always said when a play comes our way in a big game, we have to make it,” Hilton said, “and ‘Quez made it for us.”
Golson’s rise is one of the more notable storylines behind Ole Miss’ secondary. He was a former outfielder on the Rebels’ baseball team, and the Boston Red Sox selected Golson in the eighth round of the 2011 Major League Baseball draft. His talents on the diamond translated to the gridiron, where Golson opted to hone his ability rather than pursue a career with the Red Sox. “Being a baseball player, he’s always had really good ball skills,” Jones said.
A renewed focus in the weight room and the film room this past offseason propelled Golson’s game. There might not be a more dangerous ball-hawk in the country than Golson. After making only two interceptions last season, he’s now had at least one in four straight games.
At the beginning of the year, the Rebels embarked on a contest to see who could grab the most interceptions. That competition is over, Hilton concedes.
“In the last little while, we all kind of pulled back because Senquez just keeps getting ‘em,” Hilton said.
The secondary’s penchant for takeaways is no accident, as it was an emphasis of spring practice and fall camp in Oxford. Like Rebel receivers, the secondary used JUGS passing machines to help defensive backs “attack” passes, instead of waiting for poorly thrown balls. The defense also set per-practice goals for turnovers. If the defense didn’t meet the quota, the Rebels would lace up their cleats.
“We’d go through a practice and try to leave with at least five turnovers,” Jones said. “If we didn’t leave with five -- if one day, say, we only got four -- then defensively we’d run a half-gasser for whatever turnover that we didn’t get.”
That aggressiveness could be critical against Auburn. Behind Marshall, the Tigers have thrown only three interceptions -- tied for fewest in the SEC with Georgia and Alabama -- against 11 touchdowns. Wide receiver D’haquille Williams’ 527 receiving yards currently rank sixth in the league. Auburn runs the ball on nearly two-thirds (65.6 percent) of its plays, and it doesn’t make many mistakes when it goes to the air.
The Rebels could struggle if they allow Marshall to use his full dual-threat repertoire. His 7.3 yards-per-carry is tied for second among all SEC players. After Auburn’s run to an SEC title last year, the league knows what Marshall is capable of with his legs. So does the Ole Miss defense, which has yet to face a running passer this year like Auburn’s star. Marshall gashed the Rebels for 140 yards on 14 carries last year, scoring twice in the Tigers’ 30-22 victory.
“He forces you to be honest,” Jones said. “With a running quarterback, it’s 11-on-11. Everyone on the field has to win his one-on-one battle.”
If Robert Nkemdiche, C.J. Johnson and Ole Miss’ defensive front can neutralize Marshall’s legs, the Jack Boys think they can shut down the Tigers’ receivers. That confidence stems from the kind of talent the Rebels thought they’d have in the offseason, when a bulk of experience returned to Oxford. Of course, the Jack Boys are still making a name for themselves. Maybe soon their nickname will stand on its own.
“I’m not sure we thought we’d be this good,” Hilton said, “but we can’t let that get in our head. We just have to go out there every Saturday and handle our business.”