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Spring practice review: defense

Austin McAfee/The Daily Mississippian


With the end of spring practice, football beat writer Bennett Hipp breaks down next year’s Ole Miss football team position-by-position, starting with the defense. Tomorrow, he breaks down the offense. 


Defensive ends:

The story of this spring at the end was sophomore C.J. Johnson who battled a hand injury and a concussion to put together a very productive spring. After shifting from linebacker to defensive end as a freshman, Johnson showed he has the potential to be a force rushing the passer. That is big for a team like Ole Miss, who struggled mightily to generate a pass rush this past season. Juniors Cameron Whigham and Carlos Thompson both showed flashes of their potential during the spring but must become more consistent. Seniors Gerald Rivers and Chucky Mullins Award winner Jason Jones provide veteran depth. Freshman signee Channing Ward will also figure in the mix this fall.

Defensive tackles:

While Ole Miss lacks depth at some positions, defensive tackle isn’t one of those spots. The issue at tackle is health, as Uriah Grant and Byron Bennett both suffered injuries during the spring. Because of that, senior Gilbert Pena and redshirt freshman Woodrow Hamilton spent most of the spring running with the ones. Sophomore Carlton Martin capped off his spring with a pair of sacks in the Grove Bowl.


Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack brought his 4-2-5 defensive formations with him to Oxford from Arkansas State, but says that the defense will also be able to play in 4-3, 3-4 and 3-3-5 formations. During the spring, the Rebels rotated very liberally at the position, trying to find the best combination of players. Junior Mike Marry figures to be one of the constants after recording 81 tackles in 2011. The big question is to see who emerges from a group that includes sophomore Serderius Bryant, senior Joel Kight, redshirt freshman Denzel Nkemdiche and senior Aaron Garbutt, among others. Sophomore Keith Lewis also will be added to the equation during fall practice after missing the spring due to injury. At the Husky position, which is a linebacker/safety hybrid position, junior Brishen Matthews has been the number one there all spring. Other possibilities there include senior Ivan Nicholas, Garbutt and Nkemdiche.


One of the safety spots is locked up with that position belonging to junior Charles Sawyer. Sawyer is both the best safety and cornerback that Ole Miss has, which is both good and bad. Wommack admitted during the spring that in a perfect world, he’d play Sawyer at corner, but their safety play isn’t good enough now to allow them to do so. Raw but athletic redshirt freshman Chief Brown manned the other safety spot during the spring. Because of his inexperience, he is prone to mistakes, but the ability is there.


The Rebels have reason to feel good about their situation at corner. Senior Wesley Pendleton had a very productive spring, emerging as a potential above-average starter. Junior college transfer Dehendret Collins also had a good spring, consistently making plays during the spring. 

The unit will potentially add more depth with sophomores Senquez Golson and Nickolas Brassell and the freshman signees, notably Trae Elson of Oxford, Ala.