• 63°

Notes: Ole Miss’ defense facing run issues head on after ‘unacceptable’ year

Even if Ole Miss’ defense wanted to find some sand to dig its collective head into, it’d be hard for them not to hear some of the chatter.

It’s grown louder with criticism over the last two seasons as Ole Miss continues to try to patch up one of the country’s worst run defenses. It’s permeated through the walls of the Manning Center and the locker room — not that players need a reminder of just how bad it’s been.

The Rebels ranked 116th nationally against the run in 2016, a precipitous drop in that category from the previous year. It only got worse last season as Ole Miss essentially bottomed out, allowing 2,944 rushing yards — or 245.3 per game — to finish 123rd out of 129 FBS teams. By comparison, Alabama, which owned the nation’s top run defense, yielded just 1,326 yards on the ground in two more games.

It’s the primary reason Ole Miss was picked to finish next to last in the SEC’s Western Division in the league’s annual media preseason poll last month despite having eight starters back from an offense that finished last season in the top 5 in the SEC in points and yards. Players know it just like they know that kind of talk isn’t going to subside unless they show something to the contrary.

“We’re not going to run away from it or shy from it,” defensive end Ryder Anderson said. “We know that last year was unacceptable. We’ve made a motto this year: We’re here to stop the run, and we’re here to win games.”

Despite losing leading tackler DeMarquis Gates along with Marquis Haynes and Breeland Speaks to the NFL, the Rebels return more than half their defensive starters for the second year in coordinator Wesley McGriff’s system, drawing optimism from players and coaches that continuity will help production. Anderson said additional drills have made for a more physical camp, all of which has the sophomore confident the Rebels can start repairing their Achilles heel.

“We’re going to be better this year,” he said. “I promise you that.”

Contending qualities

Ben Brown has continued to draw praise from coaches and teammates, who’ve been impressed with his strength and advanced knowledge of the game as a redshirt freshman.

Brown, who played in a run-heavy offense during his private-school days at Vicksburg’s St. Aloysius, is pushing senior Jordan Sims at right guard. The 6-foot-5, 300-pounder talked this week about what he believes has him in contention for a starting spot on one of the SEC’s more experienced offensive lines starting on the ground.

“I play real hard. I try to get after it every down and every snap,” Brown said. “I love the run game. That’s all I really did in high school. We ran the ball all the time, so that’s what I love. That’s what I’m used to.”

Ole Miss led the SEC in passing last season and could rely just as heavily on A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge this season with 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Wilkins no longer around. Brown said he’s comfortable with the entire offense but admitted there’s some work to do on his pass blocking.

“Still have a couple things to sharpen up, but it’s doing well right now,” Brown said.

Learning experience

With A.J. Brown, Metcalf and Lodge — all of whom could be participating in their first NFL training camp this time next year — making up one of the nation’s more talented receiving corps, the youngsters at the position are learning what they can from them while they’re around.

Sophomore Braylon Sanders is running with the second-team offense at outside receiver while four-star signees Elijah Moore and Miles Battle have been rotating in among the reserves. Redshirt freshman Demarcus Gregory is also in the mix to crack the rotation out wide.

“We’ve got guys like AK, DK and Lodge to teach us younger guys the roots of everything and how everything goes in a game,” said Sanders, who played in seven games last season. “We’re just learning from them each and every day and getting better.

“Just little things like reading defenses, releases and what releases to use on what routes.”

As for the best advice the trio has given the young wideouts, Sanders said it’s a mental thing that’s turned into a motto for the entire group.

“Don’t blink. That’s our saying,” Sanders said. “If you make a bad play, don’t even think about it. Go on to the next play.”