The Ole Miss defense seemingly hit rock bottom on the sidelines in the final moments of the Rebels’ 38-21 loss to LSU in Tiger Stadium last October. The unit had just been gashed for more than 250 yards on the ground by Leonard Fournette.
There was arguing on the sideline, and the Rebels were far from on the same page. The roars of Tiger Stadium coupled with the second-half trouncing that LSU induced on the young defense had everyone’s blood boiling.
“The LSU game it kind of broke down,” Speaks said. “Had a lot of controversy on the sideline going on. Guys weren’t focused. I wasn’t focused. I think that is where it broke down.”
Speaks began to fall out of the defensive line rotation shortly after. He’d lost weight – almost 25 pounds. He had a lot on his mind, and his sophomore season was slipping away in disappointing fashion.
“I’m not going to call it stress, but I just felt like that I was dealing with a lot, and like I said, I wasn’t focused. So that was part of it,” Speaks said. “That is pretty much where I think my body broke down, having to do so much with everything going on.”
It lead to some offseason soul searching. He’d come to school wanting to be a part of a hard-nosed defense, but instead, his defensive unit had become a liability, and the group played a large role in Ole Miss’ struggles a season ago.
It required some reflection and soul searching. He wanted the defense to get better. He wanted to get better.
“It’s motivation. That’s basically a slap in the face,” Speaks said. “You go from being the Landshark defense to people calling you whatever they called you. It was bad, and guys hated that, and we had to get back to it. That’s all the motivation – to get back to that Landshark defense.”
It’s led to Speaks showing a motor and sense of energy that has been contagious amongst his teammates in spring practice.
“Breeland’s motor has been unbelievable,” head coach Hugh Freeze said. “He is playing at a level energy-wise and tempo-wise that I could not ask for any more of that part of it.”
Speaks is now sitting at 290 pounds, a weight that he is comfortable with but would like to see shoot up a little.
“It is,” Speaks said. “But I want to get heavier. I want to be 295-300. I think I will put all that back (on) after the spring.”
Speaks and Freeze both feel the defense has gotten its physical edge back. Now, it is about technique and learning the intricacies of the defense that new defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff has installed.
“Last year, it was a lot more hat in hands. I was a tilted three (technique). Now, it is mainly striking blockers with just your hands and keeping your head out of it. We are more square half-a-man,” Speaks said. “We have always been half-a-man, but now we are playing square on the guard versus a tilted three. But not to the sideline. It is straight ahead.”
Speaks feels more comfortable in this technique and thinks it has allowed him to see the field better and use his athleticism.
“I love it. I really do,” Speaks said. “It keeps everything in front of you. It keeps your head out of it so you can see what is actually going on and see what blocks you are getting.”
On Tuesday, the offense went head-to-head with the defense in red zone drills, and the defense dominated. Freeze is an offensive-minded coach and naturally pointed to the offense improving in the red zone. But that didn’t stop him from giving his defense credit after it forced a turnover.
“In the scripted portion, I thought the defense really dominated,” Freeze said. “I love the energy of the defense. They are flying to the football and playing physical and they really bowed-their neck.”
For Speaks, it’s about getting better day by day. He doesn’t want another season to go the way last year did. He’s a junior now, and it’s time for him to lead this resurgent defense in 2017.
“That’s a role I have had to take on,” Speaks said. “It is a bit of adjustment for me, but coach put that weight on my shoulders, and I’ve got to deliver for him and the team.”