There was an unfamiliar feeling in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in the Rebels’ 31-17 win over Arkansas on Saturday.
As the Rebel faithful cupped their hands together and yelled “O” on third downs, resulting in the Ole Miss defense swarming to swat down passes or swallow ball carriers in the backfield, fans all over the stadium felt a nostalgic excitement circa 2014.
That feeling that has been absent in Oxford in recent years comes from the memory of the famed Landshark defense, formerly feared by all offenses.
The defense hit rock bottom under the direction of Wesley McGriff in 2018, ranking close to the bottom of the FBS in almost every defensive category. This year, however, the Rebel defense has been a surprising strength in Ole Miss’s first two games of the season.
Ole Miss launched to No. 10 in the defensive SP+ rankings after the season-opening loss to Memphis and trended upwards to No. 8 after giving up only 10 points against Arkansas with the Razorbacks also scoring on a fumble recovery.
So what’s so different about the Ole Miss defense? The short answer is everything. Mike MacIntyre has completely transformed this side of the ball at every level with a mostly identical roster save a few impact newcomers in Lakia Henry and Sam Williams.
“I learned from Bill Parcells, knowledge equals confidence equal playing fast,” McIntyre said. “They have a great understanding of our defense and why we’re doing what we’re doing. That gives them great confidence and then they play faster.”
The Rebels were solid along the line of scrimmage with Benito Jones, Ryder Anderson, Charles Wiley and Sam Williams against Arkansas. The pass rush has improved with Wiley and Williams both recording a sack and Qaadir Sheppard continuing to cause havoc in the backfield. Josiah Coatney has been active with 11 total tackles this season and Benito Jones has had a nose for the ball with eight total tackles and an interception.
The linebackers suffered a huge loss when defensive general Momo Sanogo went down with an ankle injury during a punt coverage in the first quarter last Saturday. The junior is expected to miss around 10 weeks after going into surgery this week.
“It is a big loss to us, not only as a player, but emotionally for the kids,” MacIntyre said. “The positive side of it is coach (Jeff) Koonz has done such a good job with our backups and Jacquez Jones was ready to go. We feel like Jaquez won’t be able to completely replace Momo in all that he does, but we definitely think he’s good enough to be an excellent inside backer for us.”
Jaquez Jones answered the call with nine totals against Arkansas. What was a glaring weakness for the squad has become a welcome surprise with Lakia Henry showing All-SEC potential in his first two games.
Perhaps the most intriguing start to the season belongs to cornerback Keidron Smith. The sophomore has been a menace on the outside, leading the team with 12 total tackles so far this year, including a tackle for loss and a pass breakup.
The defensive backs have played more aggressively as a whole with more disruptive breaks on short passes and screens, but MacIntyre sees room for improvement.
“We’re not playing as well in the secondary as I would like right now,” he said. “We gave up two or three plays we shouldn’t have. Playing the ball at the end of the route in the secondary and playing a little bit tighter coverage back there. So those are some areas we need to improve on.”
The Rebel defense’s perceived jump in development comes against two teams not particularly known for dynamic offense, but it’s apparent the Landsharks are simply playing with a new swagger.
“We have enough subtleties in our package that we can line up correctly, but then have a few subtleties in it that help us against certain things,” MacIntyre said. “The kids understand why we’re calling it. They’ll even come over and say, ‘Hey coach we ought to do this or this.’ Great, I’m glad they’re thinking that way. I think they feel very comfortable lining up and going and playing.”