As junior defensive back Montrell Custis was helped off the field during Ole Miss’ 62-7 loss to Alabama on Saturday, an already dire defensive situation got even worse.
Custis is the second member of the Rebels’ secondary to go down with a torn ACL in the first three weeks of the season. Cornerback and kick returner Jaylon Jones succumbed to a similar injury in the season opener versus Texas Tech.
Although this Rebel secondary was hailed as an experienced and versatile group heading into the season, the tale of the tape has told a different story, as Ole Miss has allowed over 1,000 passing yards in its first three games combined. So, if there’s one thing this floundering Landshark defense doesn’t need, it’s injuries, and head coach Matt Luke knows that.
“(Custis’ injury is) a tough blow to the secondary,” Luke said. “Vernon Dasher will have to step in there, and Cam Ordway (will) as well. And they will.”
Regardless of who takes over for Custis at the defensive back position, this Rebel secondary is suddenly much thinner than originally anticipated. Paired with a young and inexperienced front seven, this event has all the signs of a disaster in the making if some on Wesley McGriff’s unit can’t step up.
“I’m not happy at all with the defensive improvement,” McGriff said. “We should be far ahead of schedule than where we are right now, and the biggest thing I’m disappointed in is giving up the explosive plays early. There is some individual improvement, but now we need overall improvement to eliminate the explosive plays.”
Last week, Alabama had four plays of 20 yards or more in its rout of the Rebels and moved up and down the field with ease. Quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts picked apart the Ole Miss secondary as their team put up 49 points in the first half. Pair that with Alabama’s strong running game against a subpar Rebel front seven, and Ole Miss had no shot on Saturday.
Although McGriff claims that some of his players have improved on an individual level, defensive improvement across the board has yet to be seen. I have never been one to bash coaches or players, but what these issues boil down to is an amount defensive talent that is insufficient to handle the elite offenses in this conference. Both Luke and McGriff are known for being strong recruiters and, to be fair, haven’t had time to build their team with their own recruits yet, but this trend of missing out on top defensive talent has to be reversed — and reversed quickly.
In order to win (or just not be blown out) in the SEC, a team must have a strong defense. In this conference, the saying “defense wins championships” still holds true, and Ole Miss will never return to its former glory until talented defensive depth is added on the recruiting trail.
Sure, the injuries to Custis and Jones hurt this defense, and they hurt it bad. Both of these defensive backs are among the best coverage players the Rebels have. But even with them healthy and in the game, this defense still wouldn’t be strong enough to slow down other SEC offenses.
I said it at the end of the Alabama game, and I’ll say it again: This defense has to improve and improve quickly, or this season will be a struggle.