This is a bizarre twist for any Ole Miss fan out there. Most people you ask would tell you the Ole Miss offense is going to determine the team’s success this season. But that may not be true. This year, it could be the defense that makes the difference.
While we’ve all grown accustomed to the high-powered Lane Kiffin offenses leading the way, look for there to be a bit of a culture change in Oxford, at least for this season. This year, the Rebel defense could easily be called on to lead the way.
More specifically, the defensive line. Needless to say, this year’s Rebels defensive line has the chance to make noise. If you’ve been paying attention to Ole Miss football, there’s a good chance you remember the Hugh Freeze years. Those were the good days (recruiting violations excluded.) Those teams included guys like Robert Nkemdiche, Breeland Speaks, and Issac Gross. That’s an extremely solid unit.
This year’s Ole Miss defensive line could look similar. Rebels’ senior defensive lineman Cedric Johnson certainly believes as much. When asked about the unit at SEC Media Days, he gave a simple answer. “I think it’s going to be the strength of the defense. I personally believe that. We’ve grown a lot and we have more depth.”
That’s big praise coming from a senior who’s been involved with a few of the best Ole Miss teams in decades. So, that being said, who leads the way for the Rebels up front?
Jared Ivey, Isaac Ukwu Can Be Elite
Both of these guys have been picked up through the transfer portal, and they’re huge additions to the defensive line. This is set to be Jared Ivey’s second year in Oxford, while it will be Isaac Ukwu‘s first.
As has been previously covered, in our rankings of the Top-5 Returning SEC defensive lineman, Ivey is a beast, coming in at number four on that list. After transferring in from Georgia Tech following his sophomore season, he made sure to make his name known. He was a mainstay in offensive backfields, recording 37 total tackles and 3.5 sacks last season. That certainly shouldn’t change this season.
On the other side, Ukwu is transferring to Ole Miss from James Madison, and the hype surrounding his arrival is real. In one season with the Dukes, Ukwu was virtually unstoppable, putting up 40 total tackles, with 10.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. The big question now is whether or not he can grow accustomed to SEC football. While the numbers at James Madison were remarkable, there’s clearly a difference in talent level. If he makes this transition with ease, opponents should take note.
According to many, Ukwu may even be a touch better than Ivey, which is hard to fathom. Regardless, both guys are special, and are going to put pressure on the opponent’s offensive lines.
Cedric Johnson, J.J Pegues Add Depth
In addition to Ivey and Ukwu, the Rebels solidify their depth on the defensive line with two more unquestionable stars up front. Neither Johnson nor J.J Pegues are new to Oxford, albeit for different reasons.
For Johnson, he’s entering his senior season at Ole Miss, including being a major piece for the defensive rotation during the last two seasons. During his sophomore and junior seasons combined, he put up 64 tackles, along with 10.5 sacks. This consistent production has caused him to become beloved among Rebel fans everywhere.
Now, for Pegues, it’s been a bit of a different ride. A graduate of Oxford High School, Pegues was a highly sought-after recruit, mainly as a tight end, and had become a bit of a hometown hero, as he led the Chargers to the 6A State Title game, while also being a prominent member of the Oxford basketball team. However, despite being pursued heavily by Ole Miss, he snubbed the Rebels and instead committed to Auburn. As expected, this move didn’t sit all that well with many in his hometown. Following limited snaps with the Tigers as a freshman, Pegues then made the transition to the defensive line ahead of his sophomore season.
This move yielded decent results, but it wasn’t enough to keep him in Auburn. Following that sophomore year, he announced he was headed back to Oxford, committing to Kiffin and the Rebels. In his one year with Ole Miss, Pegues put up 26 tackles, to go along with three sacks. With another year under his belt on the defensive line, expect Pegues to become a bigger piece of the Rebel’s puzzle on the defensive front.
Can They Get Enough Help From the Young Guys?
While we’ve discusses a list of the guys expected to be key contributors on the defensive line for the Rebels this fall, one key question still remains. And that’s whether or not the young guys can help make a difference. There’s plenty of experience for Kiffin and company on the defensive front, but they also have plenty of young guys with real potential.
Jamarious Brown, Chamberlain Campbell, and DeeJay Holmes, Jr. are all incoming freshmen who were all rated as 3-star or higher recruits out of high school. With just a bit of a decent impact from all three, this is a unit that becomes extremely scary. There’s a strong likelihood they won’t become household names this season, but the effect could still be felt.
The Pete Golding Factor
We’ve discussed previously the fact that Pete Golding could have a massive impact on the Ole Miss defense this season. Entering his first year as the Rebels’ defensive coordinator, after four years at Alabama at the same position, he immediately adds additional star power to the coaching staff in Oxford. The only question is whether it takes more than one season for that impact to be felt.
Golding’s track record as a player’s coach, and a great recruiter, is well documented. In his stint at Alabama, he managed to bring guys such as Will Anderson, Dallas Turner, Tim Smith, and Justin Eboigbe to Tuscaloosa. It’s worth pointing out that Anderson just went second overall in this year’s NFL Draft. The other three are likely to end up as high-round picks when they come out.
He’s also known as a highly intelligent guy who loves to be aggressive. In fact, if there’s one complaint from his time at Alabama, it would be the number of big plays his defenses gave up. He is not scared to take chances, and while some complain, others love that about him.
This aggression is going to give the guys up front plenty of opportunities to make plays and don’t be surprised if they do exactly that. Big plays are still going to be given up, of that there’s virtually zero doubt. But this defensive line is going to make opposing quarterbacks work for them. They’re going to bring pressure, and you can expect it to be a constant thing.