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Ole Miss’ defensive line starting over after ‘disappointing’ 2016 season

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a 10-part series breaking down each position on Ole Miss’ football team entering fall camp. A different position will be featured each day leading up to the Rebels’ first day of practice on Aug. 2.

Breeland Speaks got right to the point when recently asked about how the performance of he and the rest of Ole Miss’ defensive linemen last season.

“Very disappointing,” Speaks said.

The group is working to rectify that.
Linebacker and secondary play were sore spots last season, but a line that performed well below its talent level contributed to a defense that finished 120th nationally against the run and 96th in sacks. The unit is starting over under first-year coordinator Wesley McGriff.

“We talk about (our play last season), but it’s not really a motivating factor,” said Speaks, who’s in line to start beside nose tackle Benito Jones on the interior. “I think there’s a lot of stuff surrounding us right now with the NCAA and with how we did finish last year. Guys just want to be better regardless.”

John Youngblood, Fadol Brown, D.J. Jones and Issac Gross are gone from the rotation up front, but defensive end Marquis Haynes, a preseason first-team All-Southeastern Conference selection, is still around as the defense’s established playmaker. Haynes enters his final season third in school history in sacks (24.5) and fourth in tackles for loss (36.5) after racking up a team-high 11 last season.

But Haynes is the only returning lineman to record more than one sack a season ago, leaving the Rebels looking for a complementary pass rusher to emerge. Rising junior Victor Evans and Qaadir Shepard, who’s now eligible after transferring from Syracuse before last season, are listed as co-starters at the other end spot heading into fall camp.

Jones, a former five-star signee, showed flashes as a true freshman and may have been the Rebels’ best interior defender by season’s end. Jones, who played in every game with four starts, had 39 tackles and 4.5 tackles loss.

Speaks is looking for a bounceback season after going in the opposite direction. The 6-foot-3, 285-pounder followed up a promising redshirt freshman season with one in which he couldn’t hold on to his starting job because of a lack of production, finishing the season with 28 tackles and just 1.5 tackles for loss, but a strong spring has Speaks at the top of the depth chart again.

Redshirt freshman Charles Wiley will enter camp as Haynes’ backup. Junior Garrald McDowell and sophomore Austrian Robinson are behind Speaks while Josiah Coatney, who’s up to 302 pounds after redshirting last season following his transfer from Holmes Community College, and junior Ross Donelly will spell Jones at nose tackle.

Newcomer Markel Winters is expected to help off the edge after racking up 16 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss at Jones County Junior College last season. True freshman Ryder Anderson, at 6-foot-6 and 244 pounds, could get snaps in certain packages while senior tackle Herbert Moore is another body inside, giving the Rebels more options for a deep rotation up front.