Cautious optimism from Kiffin as Ole Miss' defensive front rebuilds
Apr. 14—OXFORD — There were struggles across the Ole Miss defense in 2020, but it's defensive line where there's a new staff member.
Former SMU defensive line coach Randall Joyner was hired in February with the task of improving a unit that had trouble slowing opposing run games and rarely made plays behind the line of scrimmage.
There's not just a new position coach for Ole Miss. There are new bodies, too.
"Everybody's wondering about the new cats that came in, but all our defensive line ... there's confidence in the whole defense but especially the defensive line," safety Jake Springer said.
Lane Kiffin is more cautious with his optimism.
"We're playing way better up there. That had to happen, and it's been really good to see, but we've got a long way to go," he said.
The Rebels gave up 206.9 yards a game against the run last year, last in the SEC and No. 101 in America.
Ole Miss was No. 107 in tackles for loss, No. 98 in sacks.
When the Rebels got pressure, it was often from the edge or with a blitz call. Substantial push from the defensive line interior was rare. Returning tackles Sincere David, Hal Northern, KD Hill and Quentin Bivens combined for 33 game appearances and three tackles for loss.
Junior college transfers Isaiah Iton and Jamond Gordon are expected to help with that.
Gordon could line up on the interior or the edge.
Redshirt freshman DeSanto Rollins has been getting some second-team reps and lining up over center.
Junior KD Hill, a returning starter at nose tackle, says Joyner has brought energy and passion to the front.
"Coach Joyner is really helping our culture, and we're playing for each other. The whole D line is improving. We're focused more on technique and bringing energy and passion," he said.
Last year at SMU, Joyner's defensive line was part of a unit that ranked third in the American Athletic Conference and 14th nationally in tackles for loss. The Mustangs were tied for third in the conference in sacks.
Having spring ball — something the Rebels' new coaching staff missed with everyone else a year ago — has been a big help for newcomers and returning players alike.
"Just the plays, when you know the plays you have confidence. You're able to improve and be disruptive," Hill said.
For the Rebels in 2021, a lot is riding on that potential disruption from up front.
"Up there up front, that's the foundation for our defense. If we play well up there then we'll do real good," Springer said.