Two years, ago Ole Miss Defensive Coordinator Dave Wommack couldn’t bring himself to leave the profession he’d been in for nearly four decades. He’d just helped Ole Miss win eight games, and earn a birth in a New Year’s Six Bowl with the number one defense in college football.
“I almost (decided to retire) after the 2014 season, and we thought ‘Man, we are having fun so let’s keep going and all that stuff,'” Wommack said. “Then last summer, we solidified this is what we wanted to do.”
Wommack first met Head Coach Hugh Freeze when Freeze brought him on staff at Arkansas State to be his defensive coordinator. They’ve been together for the last six seasons.
“He has been in this business for 38 years and he has done some remarkable things. He has impacted young men and he is the type of guy you want in the profession,” Freeze said. “He cares about young men and has been very good at it for a long time. It is time for him to enjoy some time and then for me to figure out which direction to go next.”
The two won 49 games together in those six years. They put players in the NFL, and lead the Ole Miss program to heights it had not reached in more than 50 years, but Wommack’s final year commanding the defense was a trying one.
“I was excited about building this program the way we built it the first four years, and it was just kind of downer this year,” Wommack said moments after Ole Miss’ 55-20 loss to Misssissippi State. “I think this game kind of accumulated the whole theme for the season.”
Ole Miss went through a lot of turnover between the 2015 and 2o16 seasons. It lost a lot of key pieces that Wommack used to build one of the best defenses in college football. The transition was not easy, and injuries didn’t make it any smoother.
“You can look an injury here or there. You can look at losing some leadership that was very important,” Wommack said. “But ultimately I think God puts adversity in our life and I think it makes you better in a long run. I won’t get another chance in football, but I can look back at my career and be extremely proud of the things I have accomplished.”
He lost Ken Webster, his best cover corner in the opening game. Fadol Brown was nagged with a foot injury all year. Tony Conner never found his footing after tearing his meniscus a year ago. The Rebels also had a huge void to fill with their linebackers, and nothing ever materialized.
“In the spring I was really concerned about linebackers and linebacker play and hoped that the transfers might make a big difference for us,” Wommack said. “Really didn’t have anywhere to turn, and that is on us. I didn’t recruit the guys that we needed in here that could help us stop the run. That is something that need to be addressed immediately.”
Throw in the number of freshmen in the secondary, and it all equated to the worst defense in Freeze’s tenure. The poor linebacking play lead to the Rebels being gashed repeatedly on the ground as opponents ran as they pleased. That deficiency opened up the passing game where opposing quarterbacks preyed on the young secondary.
“It was all a perfect storm,” Wommack said. “Usually one of those groups is going to step up and do what they need to do. We weren’t able to do that.”
Saturday’s game was Wommack’s last, and it was a sour way to go out. But he helped Ole Miss ascend into the national spotlight with a defense that served as the backbone of the team for the first four years.
“It was a tough year,” Wommack said. “But hopefully I was able to teach these kids some lessons. I hope I taught them integrity and character and being steady throughout how I coached.”