At its peak in 2014 and 2015, the “Landshark Defense” swarmed opposing backfields and crushed souls in the secondary – they stopped the run and caused turnovers, wreaking havoc across the field with a distinct attitude, particularly the likes of Senquez Golson, Mike Hilton, Cody Prewitt, Trae Elston, the Nkemdiches, and pre-injury Tony Conner.
The 2014 unit, which was arguably the best defense in school history, dominated the game. Over the course of the season, they allowed just 12 touchdown passes, compared to the 22 interceptions they used to knock games off their hinges.
Senquez Golson, for starters, had 10 interceptions all by his lonesome. As a collective, the Landshark Defense scored three touchdowns on interception returns, a fourth of the touchdowns thrown by opponents.
The 2014 defense forced an other-worldly 32 turnovers.
Their 2015 sequel was stellar, too, returning 4 of their 15 interceptions for touchdowns. But enough about the turnovers and no fly zone: the run defense and tackles for loss made it all possible.
Opponents managed a meager 18 rushing touchdowns across the 2014 and 2015 seasons, while only rushing for 136.9 yards a game (2014) and 127.1 yards per game (2015).
Yards per carry was a sense of pride, too – hovering at an average of 3.4. However, the greatest measure may be their tackles for loss: they ranked top ten in tackles for loss for both seasons.
But the attitude waned, and the fin sightings and extreme confidence became fewer and far between over the last two seasons, and, as a result, results on the field turned the fins-up mantra from a sense of pride to an all-too-easy punchline.
During the disastrous 2016 season, opponents’ rushing numbers ballooned: Ole Miss allowed 246.3 yards per game (5.4 yards per carry) and 31 rushing touchdowns. As an all too predictable symptom, turnovers forced dipped, too, down to just 8 interceptions and 8 fumble recoveries.
Opposing offenses picked up on the weakness quickly as the Rebels opponents only attempted 350 passes in 2016, down from well over 500 the season prior (in one less game).
As for 2017, it was more of the same. Takeaways dipped to 13, opponents rushed for over 245 yards a game (5.4 yards per carry) and 29 touchdowns, while attempted passes dropped again, only slightly, down to 345.
So what went wrong, and what can be done to show signs of life in 2018?
The first answer is simple: players left and efforts to replace them didn’t pan out, plus recruiting tactics left the roster unbalanced. Golson and Mike Hilton headed to the NFL, Robert Nkemdiche was a first-round pick. Issac Gross was gone. The under-the-radar stable of linebackers left, too, but you already knew that.
Players, not any scheme or coordinator, will be responsible for any defensive turnaround. The Xs and Os don’t matter if you don’t have the Jimmys and the Joes to execute them.
Ole Miss needs Benito Jones and Josiah Coatney to be a force inside – their defense won’t work without an unstoppable force and an immovable object in the middle of their defensive line – and they need talented defensive ends to step up and replace production lost to the NFL.
Jones, a former five-star prospect, has all the tools to be a dominant force in the backfield. Coatney, on the other hand, has been consistent – he was the team’s third leading tackler in 2017.
The Rebel defense also needs to find more playmakers across the second level (hello, Josh Clarke and Vernon Dasher). At its peak, the nickel – made prominent in Oxford by Tony Conner and Mike Hilton – added tackles for loss. Hilton famously recorded 12.5 tackles for loss during the 2015 season.
When the landsharks were flying, Ole Miss ranked in the top 10 for tackles for loss. Since the peak was passed, they’ve fallen outside the top 50.
The Ole Miss defense (with the exception of 2014) was never the suffocating force of an Alabama – they were a more glits and glam attack. They made countless big plays (turnovers, tackles for loss, sacks), and they kept opposing offenses out of the endzone.
If they’re going to begin the long journey back to the swagger of the original landshark defense, then they must first start by getting back to being opportunistic: Penetrate the offensive backfield more and force more turnovers to give your potent offense more chances to render hapless opposing defenses dazed and confused.
A dominant defense isn’t required to be successful with this offense, but they can’t be on life support, either. If the Rebel defense can show sings of promise, of beginning the long trek back to elite status, people will buy in, and the season will be considered a success (because they will have success on the field if that happens).