As the calendar flips to the month of August and students get a short break between summer intersession and the fall semester, some 85 players will report to campus on Thursday preparing to pull on the red and blue at the Liberty Bowl on August 31.
This group of athletes are in a truly intriguing spot heading into the 2019 season as expectations are not astronomical, but both sides of the ball need to show legitimate improvement since the 2018 campaign.
A six or seven-win season including a bowl bid feels like a sweet spot for Matt Luke and the Rebels, which isn’t asking for too much with the help of Rich Rodriguez and Mike McIntyre.
McIntyre inherits one of the worst defenses in the nation from a season ago, so his returning defenders should have all the motivation in the world to prove everyone wrong.
What has the defensive line learned over the summer?
There was a change of alignment and responsibilities with the shift to the 3-4 defense under McIntyre, so how has everyone adjusted and picked up the new scheme?
Seniors Josiah Coatney and Benito Jones are expected to be major players up front, but an SEC team can’t lean the backbone of the defense on two people. Can Austrian Robinson produce consistently? Can Ty Reyes, Ryder Anderson or Tariqious Tisdale take a step forward?
Who can cause havoc on the edge?
The edge defender is an integral part of any competent defense in modern football, and the 3-4 defense opens up a spot for those pass rushers to pin their ears back and focus on getting to the quarterback.
A healthy and consistent pass rush can completely cripple an offense and disrupt a quarterback, causing miscommunication and turnovers, which is something the defense will need to win matchups against more talented opponents.
Qaadir Sheppard will set the edge on one side, but the other outside linebackers position is mostly up for grabs. Best case scenario, transfer Sam Williams comes in and immediately makes a splash on this landshark defense.
Can Momo Sanogo be the Ray Lewis of this defense?
Mr. Ray Anthony Lewis is obviously a hefty name to throw around, but he’s basically a perfect model for what a middle linebacker should be for a defense.
Sanogo has the opportunity to carry over an impressive sophomore season and become an All-SEC backer. To do that he has to make his presence felt on every down, rarely making a mistake while elevating the performance of players around him.
At SEC Media Days, Sanogo said the defense has a new mindset and culture heading into the 2019 season, but he’ll need to be one of the first to set that tone in fall camp.
Can the defensive backfield finally produce a cohesive effort?
The Ole Miss secondary has been ravaged by injury in recent years, resulting in more than a handful of nightmarish outings featuring floods of open receivers and yards after the catch.
McIntyre will have two established defenders in Jaylon Jones and Montrell Custis back from injury to play alongside fellow upperclassman Myles Hartsfield. Sophomore Keidron Smith impressed in his first year and could also get plenty on snaps this year.