Expectations for the Ole Miss Rebels were not particularly high in 2012. While their season fell short of shocking the world with an outrageous outcome, their bowl appearance and feisty resistance against the cream of the SEC West (A&M, LSU, Alabama) was exciting for Ole Miss fans and bode well for Hugh Freeze's tenure.
Early in the season, the auspices didn't portend such an outcome.
In the third game of the season, in Hugh Freeze's first test of the year, the Texas Longhorns slaughtered Ole Miss, 66-31. While the Rebels' option-heavy and cutting-edge offense was able to expose the Texas defense and highlight the talent on campus in Oxford, their own defense was absolutely overwhelmed by Texas' downhill run game and deep play-action passing game.
Heading into the game, the small linebacking corps deployed by Dave Wommack and the Rebels looked like a potential problem area in stopping Texas' run game, in particular, Texas' pin'n'pull run play that targeted the edge of defenses with pulling linemen.
Here the Ole Miss boundary safety, Charles Sawyer, drops down late into the box and tries to force the run back inside. But he's cut off from that path by pulling guard Trey Hopkins, and the 100-or-so-pound difference between the two men makes a significant impact -- he's totally blown out of the way.
However, before that happens, the Ole Miss defensive line does little to help out the back seven. The defensive end allows himself to be "pinned" (per the pin'n'pull) inside by a Texas tight end, a damning failure, which forces Sawyer to try and get outside of the play. The nose tackle is similarly prevented from impacting the play in pursuit while big Mike linebacker Mike Marry (250 pounds) is unable to reach the play.
Later, Texas uses a spread set, then runs a Power Read to the middle of the field:
This time, the defensive end wrongly takes an outside angle here to stop the RB, yet "Stinger" linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche also takes the outside angle. No one attacks the pulling block by guard Mason Walters, and the backside of the Ole Miss line is driven or screened out of the play by the Texas offensive line. David Ash has multiple paths to choose up the middle and picks his way for a first down.
There was little in the way of cohesion by the Ole Miss defenders in understanding their roles in the defense or creating a wall against the run. When Texas introduces the play-action attack on that same drive, the game is essentially over:
Texas brings back a big formation and invites the Ole Miss "drop an extra run defender into the box late" defense to entrust a single deep defender with handling Olympic athlete Marquise Goodwin on a vertical route. Ash actually underthrows Goodwin, resulting in a first-and-goal rather than a score, but he rectifies that with a TD pass two plays later.
This was not a strong defensive unit. The small back end of the defense was particularly easy to exploit, and the defensive line did little to disrupt the offense or protect defenders. Texas ran the ball for 350 yards on 54 attempts with 676 total yards at 8.7 yards per play.
Yet, two weeks later this defense held Alabama to 3.7 yards per carry running the football, 305 total yards, and only 4.8 yards per play overall. Any Texas fan can quickly assure you that the Texas run game and overall offense was not as effective as the unit that played in Tuscaloosa and won the national championship.
So what changed for Ole Miss?
Wommack would probably begin by emphasizing how Ole Miss improved in their fundamentals, mastered more of the assignments and details of the defense, and shuffled a few players around to find better fits. Perhaps most importantly though, they installed a 260-pound freshman at nose tackle.
With Isaac Gross in the game, the stunting and 8-man front defenses installed by Dave Wommack were able to thrive.
The Ole Miss defense is largely built around bringing a safety into the box just before the snap, mixing in stunts, and playing bend don't break on the edge to prevent deep passing plays.
The base Ole Miss defense looks like this on a good snap:
Gross' lightning quick athleticism flushes Johnny Manziel out of the pocket. On this play the two outside linebackers are "Husky" linebacker D. Collins and "Stinger" Denzel Nkemdiche. In a normal defense, that translates to nickelback and will linebacker.
One of the Ole Miss safeties also drops down to play the seam like an inside linebacker in coverage. The other safety and two corners drop deep. The result is a lightning-quick, four-man underneath zone that's hard to exploit with the quick passing game.
When Ole Miss moved Charles Sawyer, the corner abused by Trey Hopkins above, to corner and moved in freshman Trae Elston at safety, the secondary clicked. With Gross blowing up the A&M line's pass protection, the small Ole Miss backers could take advantage of their great speed to cover up the short routes.
The elder Nkemdiche in particular was a star for the Rebels defense. He mixed the ability to cover with a physicality and effectiveness in the box not typically found in a 5'11, 203-pound frame.
The next most common call for the Ole Miss defense was its array of run stunts and pass blitzes.
Nkemdiche comes on a blitz while Gross flies into another interior gap. While they fail to bring down the runner in the backfield, the overall disruption channels the runner into the protected safety Cody Prewitt, who is ready to light him up.
These stunts can still result in the defense being vulnerable, but no defense really had a great answer for this dillemna:
If not for the putridity of their own offense in attempting to handle the Alabama defense, the Ole Miss Rebel D nearly won the day against Alabama's offense. The main reason? Isaac Gross.
We've covered in this space how Alabama relied on its extraordinary interior OL to single-team opposing linemen on Inside Zone runs and bulldoze linebackers. This approach is fantastic for dealing with normal, massive SEC linemen, but it was not as effective in dealing with a quick disruptor like Gross.
Barrett Jones tries to slip past Gross and leave him to right guard, Anthony Steen. Gross beats Steen to a spot on the field, and then makes the play from the backside. A&M's Spencer Nealy caused similar problems for Alabama in the Tide's attempt to deal with a quick nose-tackle who could disrupt the middle of the field.
Heading into 2013, the Ole Miss defense returns eight starters from this group. Denzel Nkemdiche played both the "Stinger" and "Husky" linebacker positions and compiled 82 tackles, three sacks, and 10 tackles for loss while contributing five pass break-ups and three interceptions to the pass defense. He's joined by brother Robert Nkemdiche in the fall. You may have heard of him. His highlight tape is replete with him dominating as a 3-4 defensive end, nose tackle, and running back at 6-5, 275 pounds.
He'll be joining emerging defensive end C.J. Johnson and Gross on the defensive line, and they'll be backed by a very solid Rebel secondary with four returning starters.
After using 2012 to master Wommack's defensive schemes and fit the different players into their ideal positions, look for Hugh Freeze's Rebels to shock some teams in 2013. Their small but quick lineup has demonstrated the ability to cause problems for spread passing attacks while also swarming power running games.
It's not the typical SEC way, but the infusion of more athleticism in the recruiting class and another Nkemdiche could be enough to push Ole Miss into the SEC's elite defenses.