Column: Desperate moves may be catalyst for improving defense

Posted on Oct 5 2018 - 5:50am by John Macon Gillespie

When the band Guns N’ Roses worked on its hit song “Sweet Child o’ Mine” with producer Spencer Proffer, he suggested that the band add an outro to the song. Lead singer Axl Rose listened to a demo of the track trying to figure out what words to use for the song’s breakdown, and began to say to himself, “Where do we go? Where do we go now?” in tune with the music.

With that, one of the 1980s’ most iconic songs came to fruition, and you can still hear Rose’s voice on the breakdown singing those same words.

It’s very possible that Matt Luke and his coaching staff were asking themselves, “Where do we go now?” this week — much like Rose did 30 years ago — after Ole Miss safety and Chucky Mullins Award winner C.J. Moore suffered a season-ending injury last weekend in Baton Rouge. For a defense that was already struggling with a lack of talent and depth, this was the last thing the Rebels needed.

Despite this seemingly dooming diagnosis for one of the team’s most experienced defenders, Luke has turned to some unlikely sources to fill this depth issue, and some fans are optimistic about the change.

Running back Armani Linton runs drills during the Rebels’ fist practice of the season. Photo by Christian Johnson

Running backs Armani Linton and Tylan Knight have been moved from their regular roles on offense to defensive back to provide some depth in the secondary. While this may seem foreign to some fans on the surface, Linton and Knight won’t be as out of their element as one might think.

Linton came to Ole Miss as a safety in 2015 and was moved to running back before the start of the 2018 season. Although most of Linton’s experience has come as a backup for the Rebel secondary, he was ranked as the No. 14 safety in the 2015 class, according to 247Sports. Although Linton hasn’t made many plays as a backup defensive back during his time on campus, the potential is certainly there for him to make a difference on this struggling defense.

If you take a look at Knight, the story is mostly the same. Knight is a freak of nature who played both sides of the ball during his career at Pearl High School, where he helped lead his team to an undefeated record and state title last season. Knight was also selected as one of the defensive players on Clarion-Ledger’s All-State first team. Although Luke and the Rebels like what they’ve seen from Knight offensively, the potential for him to be a great defender is clear.

Coming into the season, the Rebel secondary was hailed as an experienced and battle-tested group that would be “put on islands” to dedicate more bodies to stopping the run. Now, with several of these veteran players out for the season, some of the younger and less-experienced bodies, including Linton and Knight, will have to fill their shoes. Fortunately for Ole Miss, however, this week’s opponent doesn’t feature an offense as powerful as those of Alabama and LSU, who have handed Ole Miss its only two losses this season.

Louisiana-Monroe, which is traveling to Oxford for the Rebels’ homecoming game this week, doesn’t have a running back with more than 300 yards on the ground this season, although they have three who have rushed for more than 200. For comparison, Ole Miss’ Scottie Phillips will enter Saturday’s game with 563 yards on the ground and six touchdowns — the same number of touchdowns as that of all of ULM’s running backs combined.

The Warhawks’ quarterback, Caleb Evans, is no Tua Tagovailoa or Joe Burrow but could prove to be problematic for the depleted Rebel secondary. Evans has thrown for more than 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns this season, with six interceptions. Although Evans has made some plays for the Warhawks this season, he threw two interceptions in a 46-14 loss to Georgia State last week. If the Ole Miss defense can play with some tenacity, it could force Evans into making more mistakes.

“Sweet Child o’ Mine” is one of the most famous rock songs of all time, but its writers had some confusion with it in its early stages. Maybe the same will eventually be said about this Ole Miss defense. Maybe Luke’s “Where do we go now?” will turn into one of the best parts of this 2018 secondary.