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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Before recruiting, don’t forget to celebrate overachieving D

Things were so good, it almost wasn’t fair to everybody: Before Ole Miss could escape the cold drizzle of the January rain in Birmingham after a never-in-doubt win over Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl, fans and media were clamoring about the coming recruiting class, which depending on your optimism and news sources, could be one of the best in school history.

That’s to be expected, but before any self-respecting Rebel fan starts clamoring about names like Conner, Lawson and Nkemdiche (the other one), they should stand in awe for just a little bit longer of the season-long reclamation of guys like Marry, Pena and Nkemdiche (that one).

If nothing about the Rebels’ 7-6 finish and expected 2013 haul on National Signing Day seems real, the most fictitious, white whale whopper is the idea of a game-changing defense capable of stopping both the run and pass with efficiency. But that’s exactly what Ole Miss did to a Pitt team missing its best player (1,000 yard rusher Ray Graham). From the moment Senquez Golson picked off Tino Sunseri on the first series, the game was in little doubt.

And this is the same team that played Texas? Huh? The defense that carpet-bombed the Pitt backfield Saturday resembled the fleeting glory games of Tyrone Nix’s Landsharks, specifically the 2008 unit that punished Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. Junior Mike Marry’s day (four tackles for a loss) resembled the next-superstar-up run of that ’08-’09 defense, yet was cobbled together from the paltry wreckage of what that staff left behind in the burning disaster of the next two seasons.

If it’s possible for Rebel fans to get even more excited about landing some of the nation’s very top defensive talent in a month, consider what journeyman coordinator Dave Wommack did with spit-and-prayers depth this year. Wommack was an afterthought in the wake of Hugh Freeze’s hire — the focus instead was on the up-tempo spread offense heading to Oxford — but in retrospect, his work might’ve been the most impressive of any of the new coaches’ in these first 13 games.

Hard to figure out

So often fans and media get wrapped up in brand-able, marketable slogans for coaches: “He runs X offense, he runs Y defense.” Wommack’s asset is his wisdom, a knowledge that no one scheme could’ve possibly led this unit to 7 wins this season. Instead it was a junkyard effort and a steady amount of patience (both Marry and Denzel Nkemdiche admitted after the bowl that the season was very much a learning process in technique and practice). Ole Miss ran a 4-2-5, a 3-4, a 4-3, and whatever else could possibly work, and as the year went, the calls hit more than they missed.

Now the system that took an embarrassingly bare cupboard and made a serviceable defense will return almost everyone, add back embattled corner Nickolas Brassell, possibly land the nation’s top safety, defensive end(s), hopefully return long-injured linebacker D.T. Shackelford and get raw talent like Channing Ward a full year of conditioning. Don’t wet your pants, but that’s a sunny assessment and I didn’t even mention names like Charles Sawyer, Trae Elston and C.J. Johnson, all returning.

There will be much made of the coming freshmen. That’s unavoidable, and should be celebrated by Rebel fans – but in time. For now, pay your homage to this year’s skeleton crew, Dave Wommack’s Junction Boys. Never has a thinner group with slimmer chances done so much for a Rebel defense.

–sports@oxfordeagle.com (January 8, 2013, Page 8)

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