With an abysmal showing in 2018 and the famed Landshark defense of Ole Miss becoming a distant memory, head coach Matt Luke was forced to make a change. Immediately after a 35-3 Egg Bowl loss in which the Rebels allowed 309 rushing yards, it was out with defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff.
Luke’s short search for a replacement ended with the arrival of Mike McIntyre, who was fresh off of a six-season head coaching stint at Colorado which included an AP Coach of the Year nod in 2016.
Along with McIntyre came a shift from the 4-2-5 to a more aggressive and dynamic 3-4 scheme with an emphasis on quarterback pressure through disguised blitzes and coverages.
The difference of the two schemes will be most evident along the line of scrimmage, and the Rebels’ most experienced position group spent all summer learning their new roles.
Benito Jones, Josiah Coatney and Qaadir Sheppard are all back for their senior seasons in pursuit of a bowl game under their new coordinator.
“(McIntyre’s) got something to prove. We’ve got something to prove,” Jones said. “The whole defense and the whole offense has something to prove.”
Jones earned freshman All-American honors in 2016 as he enjoyed arguably his best season with 39 tackles, 4.5 for loss. A scary spinal injury that forced him to leave 2017 preseason camp put a speed bump ahead of his sophomore season. His nine tackles for loss and three sacks last season put him back in the conversation of the leagues top linemen.
Patrolling the interior alongside Jones will be junior Ryder Anderson and senior Josiah Coatney, who’s been a steady presence for the Rebels in the past two seasons. Coatney played in all 12 games in 2017 and 2018, turning in 65 and 63 total tackles each year. He said the change in his role is more mental than physical.
“The knowledge of the defense is something that’s been more instilled in us, not even just the scheme, but the defensive coordinator’s actual ideology,” Coatney said. “He definitely gave us insight to why he pulls toward his defense a little bit more and what he’s looking to accomplish.”
Part of McIntyre’s ideology will require some edge defenders on this defense to do some new things. Outside linebacker Qaadir Sheppard has worked to expand his skill set to match his new responsibilities.
“I’m just standing up more and dropping into more coverage,” he said. “Last year I was more of a rusher, I didn’t really drop back that much. Sometimes I might have guarded a tight end or something, but this year I’ll be in coverage a lot. Knowing the passing schemes is kind of hard, but I’m getting used to it slowly. I think I’ve gotten used to it now in fall camp I feel like I’m confident in all of my coverages.”
Sheppard has had to balance switching from defensive end to linebacker while being a leader as one of the older players in the group. While he played all 12 games last season, there isn’t much SEC experience behind him. Transfer Sam Williams is expected to play at the opposite edge position.
“If I see them doing something wrong, I’m going to correct them on it because I want the team to be good,” Sheppard said. “I’m always on our young guys all the time. I try to set an example with my work ethic.”
Austrian Robinson, Tariqious Tisdale, Charles Wiley and Williams will be essential for a defensive front looking to change the narrative from a season ago.
“We try to work the young guys and increase the depth of the team because you need everybody,” Coatney said. “The season’s not just one game, it’s 12 long games, so you definitely need everyone you’ve got.”