No. 14 Ole Miss tries to fix porous defense during bye week
OXFORD, Miss. (AP) Earlier this season, Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze described his team's defense as one that might bend but doesn't break.
That description might need some reassessment. Through five games, the 14th-ranked Rebels are near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference in several defensive categories.
The latest struggle was on Saturday against the Memphis Tigers. The Rebels won 48-28 , but Memphis gained 474 total yards and pulled within 27-21 late in the third quarter before the Ole Miss offense scored a few quick touchdowns to end the threat.
Freeze was clearly frustrated with the defense after the win. His concern hadn't faded much a few days later.
''It wasn't lack of effort, but we definitely need to cut back on some things we're doing and see if we can't be good enough to run a smaller package and give our kids a chance to have success,'' Freeze said.
Ole Miss (3-2, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) has some time to fix its defensive problems. The Rebels are on a bye week and don't play again until a road game against Arkansas on Oct. 15.
Freeze said no one on the defense is immune to criticism, but many of the problems can be traced back to linebacker. The Rebels' most experienced player at that spot - junior DeMarquis Gates - was suspended for the Memphis game for what the school called a ''violation of team standards.''
Freeze hopes Gates can return and have a positive impact during the Arkansas game, but he also wants better play from others including Terry Caldwell, Rommel Mageo and Detric Bing-Dukes. All four have started at least one game at middle linebacker during their career.
Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack says the middle linebacker position is still wide open as the team works through its options. The Rebels are giving up nearly 30 points and 450 total yards per game.
''I want to see them step up, hit somebody in the hole, make their reads, fit their gaps and do all the things a middle linebacker is supposed to do,'' Wommack said. ''I want to see them be more aggressive in what they do.''
If Ole Miss can figure out a solution at linebacker, the rest of the defense hasn't been too bad.
Defensive end Marquis Haynes continues to be one of the SEC's best pass rushers, with five tackles for a loss, including three sacks. Safety Zedrick Woods had two interceptions in the Memphis game, including one that was returned for a 31-yard touchdown.
Haynes said the defensive line is working to get even more pressure on the quarterback while the secondary - which includes two freshmen starters in safety Myles Hartsfield and cornerback Jalen Julius - is growing up quickly and becoming more productive.
As for the linebackers, Haynes says ''they're starting to understand where to fill up their gaps and play more physical.''
Freeze said the biggest concern is giving up explosive plays of 20 yards or more.
''The games we don't give those up, we're pretty efficient in not letting teams score touchdowns,'' Freeze said.
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