Five Ole Miss Defenders Primed for a Breakout
The Ole Miss defense took a step forward in 2019. Can they do it again in 2020.
After back-to-back seasons in 2017 and 2018 where the Rebels ranked No. 76 and No. 90 nationally in defensive efficiency by SP+, the Ole Miss defense jumped to No. 42 in 2019 under Mike Macintyre.
Now, the co-defensive coordinator duo of D.J. Durkin and Chris Partridge are trying to capitalize on recent improvements and move forward yet again.
Ole Miss lost quite a bit from last year's defense, particularly on the defensive line, but also brought back a number of players with significant starting experience.
If the Ole Miss defense is to take another leap forward, it will be because of a handful of breakout players. Here are the most likely candidates.
1. Brandon Mack – RS Fr. OLB
Brandon Mack has been the golden boy of the 2020 fall camp.
After a redshirt in 2019, one in which he was admittedly not fond of, Mack has caught the eyes of all of his coaches and a number of players as well. He seems in line to be one of the best Rebel pass rushers entering the year and is also athletic enough to drop into coverage as well.
"What probably helped me this year from last year where I redshirted was getting a feel of going against the starters," Mack said. "That helped me get a little bit of experience. It pretty much feels the same as it did last year because I was going up against the starters. It doesn't really feel different for me. I'm not just thrown in, it feels like second nature."
2. The Canadian Duo
Lane Kiffin had some open scholarships following his first, abbreviated recruiting class after showing up in Oxford in December.
Whether or not that was intentional left some spots open for summer roster flexibility, but they never could have predicted a pandemic would land them two players from our neighbors up North that will be able to play from day one for Ole Miss.
Both Tavius Robinson and Deane Leonard have been cleared by the NCAA for immediate impact. Ole Miss is still waiting to hear from the SEC on Leonard to be 100% sure, but typically that is just a formality.
Robinson will provide immediate depth on the defensive line. At 6-foot-8 with a 4.6 second 40 time, you can't teach that size and speed. Leonard has recently been making an impact in the Rebel secondary, where he'll be lining up at the outside corner spots.
3. The Inside Linebacker Room
The linebacking trio of Lakia Henry, Jacquez Jones and MoMo Sanogo are the cornerstone, the backbone and the lynchpin of this Ole Miss defense. For the Rebels to make a step forward in the SEC West, it starts with them controlling the middle of the field on defense.
To Ole Miss fans, these three are known. Nationally, they're not. This linebacking room could very easily breakout from names known within the Rebel fanbase to names known around the nation.
4. Ryder Anderson – Sr. DL
Ryder Anderson played only five games last season, starting in four, before injuries to both his knee and ankle required him to have surgery and miss the remainder of the 2019 season.
However, in just four full games plus the game he left for injury, Anderson recorded 14 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks. The Rebels have a lot to replace along the defensive front, and Anderson – now back to full health – is the leading candidate.
5. Otis Reese – Jr. S, Transfer From Georgia
This selection comes with a massive asterisk and subsequent question marks. Sadly, none of those asterisks or question marks have anything to do with Reese or Ole Miss – it's all up to the NCAA.
After transferring from Georgia, Reese is still waiting on NCAA clearance for his eligibility in 2020. If he plays, Kiffin says the former four-star recruit is already one of the best players on the entire Rebel team.
“We have not heard a final thing on Otis. All of that was turned in a while ago and so we are waiting to hear that,” Kiffin said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of anticipation around that. He’s one of the better players on our entire team, would definitely be a starter for us and significant players. So, obviously, hope that goes well.”