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Ole Miss Defensive Preview: Are they as good as S&P+ say they are?

Curious to know if they are for real.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Mississippi Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Who better to ask than our colleagues over at about the Ole Miss Defense? Zach Berry graciously answered a bunch of our questions about the 16th rated defense in S&P+. (For reference, Cal is rated at 15th) Take a look at his answers below!

With Coach MacIntyre coming in, how has the defense changed? Scheme wise? Position Changes?

Where to begin? The defense is 16th nationally in SP+ and has improved in every single category possible. Last season, teams legit didn’t know how to prepare for Ole Miss because no one knew how to line up and opposing coaches were dumbfounded in film study. This year, the front seven has been tremendous. The switch from a 4-2-5 to a 3-4 has been a huge catalyst for this. Outside linebackers like Qaadir Sheppard and Charles Wiley are now able to roam free without having to put their hand in the ground, leading to getting washed away on the interior. They are now able to utilize their athleticism in open space and win one-on-ones with ease. The defense is 11th in the country in tackles for loss and MacIntyre’s philosophy of stuffing the run and forcing you to beat them through the air is proving to be something they can hang their hat on. The Rebels are 40th in rush defense and 53rd in pass efficiency defense, two numbers that are night and day different from 2018.

Has any player in particular stood out from the regime change?

Outside of the two mentioned above, I would say that the Ole Miss linebacker room has benefited greatly from the addition of MacIntyre and the new two new linebacker coaches, Jeff Koonz and Tyrone Nix. Dudes like Donta Evans, Jacquez Jones, and Willie Hibbler not only look better in run support and pass coverage, but they are playing with tremendous confidence. Mac’s mantra, that he took from his time working under Bill Parcells, “knowledge equals confidence equals playing fast” has certainly come to fruition in the first three weeks of the season.

How has the defense played in your eyes? S&P+ rates them as a top 15 unit. Are they a legitimately good defense?

I think they’ve been tremendous. Before the snoozer that was SELA, the unit had only allowed two touchdowns through the first two games. And one of those was a short field in the opener against Memphis. As of now, I think they’re a legit, top-70 defense. But, the SEC slate will have something to say about it in the end.

How big is the current hole left by Mohamed Sanogo? Who has stepped up in his stead?

MoMo was a huge loss. He was the undisputed leader of the defense and was playing at a really high level before the injury. The aforementioned Evans, Jones, and Hibbler have picked up the slack and junior college transfer Lakia Henry is starting to really flash on tape. Those four are carrying the load right now on the interior and I expect Henry to really come on by season’s end.

Zedrick Jones was a big part of your secondary last season. Who is looking to take up his role and make up the impact he made?

Jon Haynes, another junior college transfer, has stepped up at safety for MacIntyre. He is a physical box safety who will come downhill and fucking strike you. He can get caught with his eyes in the backfield at times due to his aggressive style but he is another one, like Henry, who will get better with game reps. He registered an interception last week and I think he will be a really good player before it’s all said and done.

Jaylon Jones had a solid season last year, Has he taken that step up so far this year? What’s his true position or is he a hybrid Safety/OLB?

Jaylon is recovering from a torn ACL that he suffered in last year’s opener. He is an explosive athlete who was a weapon in the kick game before the injury. He is still a really good SEC corner, but in my opinion, he is not 100% yet. He still looks to be a step or two slow. Here’s to hoping he is full-speed by mid-October!

The top 3 tacklers on the team right now are DBs. Is that a worry for you or is that just how the games have gone?

MacIntyre comes from a secondary background and plays defensive backs who are aggressive and don’t mind sticking their noses in there. A lot of teams that run the 3-4 naturally have play making defensive backs in my eyes because a lot of the front seven work is run fits and being in the right place. The secondary plays a huge role in stepping up if the first and second level doesn’t make the play. Also, with the renewed energy in the run defense, teams are trying their luck through the air more, leading to defensive backs having to make plays.

What’s the feel for the defensive line? Strengths and weaknesses of the line? Name to look out for?

Benito Jones is the dude up front. He is a NFL-caliber three technique that is in a draft year and is playing like it. He has a great first step and is built like a damn coke machine. Josiah Coatney is another guy at the first level to know. He is a veteran who has played a ton of meaningful snaps and is a leader in that room. Quentin Bivens is a true freshman who has flashed some in the early-going and Austrian Robinson is a vocal leader in the trenches. But, if you want one name to know, Tariqious Tisdale is a dude to keep an eye on. He’s every bit of 6’5 and 290-pounds and runs like a linebacker. When he is on, he is a problem.

What are your takes on the Ole Miss defense? Let us know in the comments below!