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UT game shows OM defense will be longer, harder renovation project

COLUMN: To take nothing away from Hugh Freeze’s innovative signature on the spread passing attack, defenses are what the SEC’s unprecedented run of BCS titles have been built on. On a lesser level, that holds true for almost every successful 9 or 10 win campaign for a conference team.

In 2008 and ’09, the Rebels sprang to life on offense under Houston Nutt, but it was the aggressive and talent-laden blitz packages on defense that shut down LSU, Texas Tech, Auburn and Arkansas to capture those signature wins. Against Oklahoma State in the 2010 Cotton Bowl, the Rebels held one of the nation’s best and most prolific offenses to just 7 points. In the 26 games since, OSU has only scored under 30 points in a game twice.

You know where this story goes next: straight to 2010, and 49 points surrendered to Jacksonville State in the season opener. The Rebels have been atrocious ever since, and last Saturday’s 66 points scored by Texas was just another in a now three-season long record of total embarrassment.

SEC defenses are hard to build. There’s a premium on top-shelf run-stopping linebackers and defensive linemen possessing the football holy trinity of size, speed and athleticism. The top offenses of the moment are imported from the Big 10 of the 1960s and 70s by Yankee-born coaches who came to places like LSU and Alabama to harvest the South’s two-decade bumper crop of talent.

The “Saban system” is to run hard and often, pass out of necessity and wear down the opponent with a perfect machine of ball control fueled by top-tier talent and managed with a level of discipline previously unseen in this era.

Because of a seller’s market for talent and the popular offenses of the moment, SEC defenses are easy to tear down. Blame Nutt, former defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix, both or anyone you’d like — it doesn’t make up for the fact that the talent Ed Orgeron culled but couldn’t develop flourished quickly and faded within two years.

The replacements didn’t compliment Nix’s system (or vice versa), and when the last Louisiana-born blue chips departed for the NFL after the ’09 season, the Rebel defense simply broke.

Hugh Freeze’s creativity and Bo Wallace’s availability have amounted to a quick-fix on offense. Ask Freeze and he’ll tell you there’s a ton of fundamental work left to be done, but there’s no arguing that Ole Miss can score points again.

New defensive coordinator Dave Wommack has no such luxury. The entire defensive unit is thin, razor-thin, and there’s a substantial drop in talent from the first team to the second. His best linebacker, D.T. Shackelford, is battling a two-year knee injury with no end in sight. His best lineman, Channing Ward, is a true freshman who was harangued by the NCAA until just days before the season. His best defensive back, Charles Sawyer, went down with an injury before the first game of the season.

Via the Internet and talk radio, there have been multiple calls for Wommack’s head following Saturday’s loss. Those are cries of ignorance fueled by the shortsightedness of emotion. Those who criticized his scheme (the oft-debated 4-2-5) are likely prejudiced because of coordinators past (Chuck Driesbach in 2002-’03) who used the same alignment.

It doesn’t matter if Wommack goes to a 3-3-5, a 4-3 base or a Tampa-2: This is the least talented, least stocked defense in the league. You can scheme a surprise or two, but you can’t hide a lack of talent forever. Wommack’s job is to re-coach fundamentals mysteriously lost in the Nutt era and try to pump enough smoke-and-mirrors trickery to put the Rebels in the previously unthinkable position of winning six games this season.

At this point, any higher of an expectation is as shaky as the defense itself.

(Steven Godfrey is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. Contact him online at sgodjr@gmail.com or on Twitter, @38Godfrey.) (September 20, 2012, Page 9)

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