OXFORD, Miss. — Watching the Ole Miss defense fly around at spring practice, it’s hard to imagine how badly this unit struggled last fall.
Then again, the players didn’t have new defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff barking at them every day.
You hear the clichés trickle out any time there’s a major coaching hire: The new guy is phenomenal, the transition has been smooth and players are really responding to his methods. The last guy was OK, but there’s a new energy on our side of the ball.
And yet, for at least some Rebels players, the return of “Coach Crime Dawg” — who served as co-defensive coordinator/cornerbacks coach at Ole Miss in 2012 — really has instilled new life on a defense that ranked among college football’s least effective in 2016.
A young secondary still in need of development is especially benefiting from McGriff’s expertise.
“It was a wake-up call, definitely,” said sophomore Myles Hartsfield, who switched from safety to cornerback this spring. “He expects more out of the DBs than any group on the field, because we’re the last line of defense. I’ve never had a coached that’s pushed me to reach higher levels and better myself like that. I appreciate him and all he’s brought.”
During Tuesday’s practice, which was open to the media, McGriff’s booming voice was a constant. He gave players plenty of critiques on their technique and continually pushed them to keep up with the intense pace of practice. If someone wasn’t showing enough effort, the whole field knew about it.
“Why are you talking to me? He’s the one that beat you,” McGriff told a player at one point during a one-on-one fumble recovery drill. “Hell of a job,” he said to the other player.
Changes for Ole Miss
Hartsfield and fellow sophomore Jaylon Jones, who were pressed into action early during last season’s disappointing run, both noted the stressful learning curve they had to overcome as college first-timers. This spring, they say McGriff condensed the defensive playbook while installing the foundation of what should be a more aggressive scheme than what Dave Wommack ran.
“What Coach McGriff does a little better is the defense is a little simpler,” Jones said. “We’re not thinking as much. We already got the defensive scheme. Now we’re just playing instead of thinking. We’re taking the film room more serious and we’re playing a lot faster, because we know what we’re doing.”
Like last year, McGriff’s defense should feature heavy doses of man coverage. But the secondary expects to press opposing receivers more often in 2017 using the “step and replace” technique, also known as a “soft press.” That helps defensive backs limit explosive plays while also accounting for quick underneath routes.
“McGriff has us down there a lot. But that lets us know he has trust in us,” Jones said. “We like the press. We tell him we want it.”
The apparent culture change on defense extends beyond the Ole Miss secondary. Sophomore defensive tackle Benito Jones, who is working under first-year defensive line coach Freddie Roach, also notices differences this spring.
“It’s a lot different. We watch film on NFL guys who play Sundays and Mondays,” said Jones, who tries to model his game after Rams star Aaron Donald. “We transition the same technique they’re playing. It’s very useful.”
Learn from, don’t relive history
The endgame here is obvious: The Rebels want to distance themselves as much as possible from the dysfunctional defense of 2016, when they gave up more than 461 total yards per game. Florida State, Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State all scored 40-plus points against them. The rival Bulldogs went off for 55 points in the Egg Bowl.
Not dwelling on last season, cliche as that may be, is an absolute necessity for Ole Miss to revitalize its defense. After all, it was only three years ago that the Rebels’ “Landshark” defense finished No. 1 nationally in points allowed per game.
McGriff, whose strong NFL and SEC track record precedes him, possesses the coaching ability to maximize the talent already on this roster and get Ole Miss back to the Landshark days. His players certainly believe that.
“Last year, I can’t even say what it was. We learned from our mistakes, keep moving on,” Hartsfield said. “This year is a different year. We’re going to show everybody that it was just last year, and we’re not going to let it snowball into this year.”
The 2017 Grove Bowl kicks off Saturday at 11 a.m. CT. Admission at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium is free, and the game will be televised on SEC Network.
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— Ole Miss Football (@OleMissFB) March 30, 2017