Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Ole Miss Football Preview: Defensive Line

Overview: Last season, the defensive line entered the fall with question marks both in the starting rotation and with substantial depth. A unit that was thrown into the fire early embraced the opportunity to grow and blossomed into one of the most reliable groups as the season progressed.

This year, the line will be looked upon to anchor a defense that lacks marquee names. Marcus Tillman and Greg Hardy became players for foes to beware through the extent of last season, and those bookends could team with senior Jeremy Garrett and junior Peria Jerry to form an impressive front four. Their maturation as a group over the course of the spring and summer is vital to the defense as camp opens in August.

Defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen is tasked with finding depth, and he has a collection of contributors, many of which with starting experience, in seniors Brandon Jenkins and Viciente DeLoach, junior Chris Bowers, sophomore Daverin Geralds and freshman Kentrell Lockett.

A first team Freshman All-American, Tillman flourished in his rookie season, splitting starts at both defensive tackle (6) and defensive end (5). Defensive Coordinator John Thompson has stated that he was one of the most consistent players in the spring and can be seen around the locker room or film room religiously.

Recording four tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks and one forced fumble in the spring game, Tillman continues to display the ability to be a consistent force in the trenches for the Rebels.

A native of Meadville, Miss., Tillman packed on some pounds over the offseason without compromising his speed. He is a rare combination of size, speed and athleticism and has an uncanny knowledge for his position. With a combination of both power and finesse, Tillman could cement himself as a perennial playmaker for years to come.

Hardy also earned Freshman All-America honors in 2006 and became a fan favorite due to his ability to terrorize quarterbacks and his TD catch as a wide receiver against rival Mississippi State. Hardy is a multi-talented athlete who made appearances in all 12 games and started nine at defensive end.

Hardy recorded six tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in the Red-Blue game, despite missing a fraction of spring drills while playing power forward for the Ole Miss basketball team.

Jerry battled through injuries to appear in eight games, making six starts along the defensive line last season. He earned starts at end, tackle and nose tackle and will be a fixture up front once healthy. A physical specimen at 6-foot-2, 300 pounds, Jerry has showed flashes of dominance in practice, but has yet to play a full season without injury. His contributions in the fall are essential for the success of the defense.

At 6-foot-1, 290 pounds, Garrett appeared in six games last season starting three at nose tackle. With three letters on his resume, Garrett will have to shoulder leadership responsibility and hold down the middle of the defensive line due to a lack of depth inside.

Jenkins is also a senior with three letters and played in all 12 games last season, making seven starts. Coming on strong throughout the duration of 2007, Jenkins tied for seventh in the SEC with two fumbles recovered. The 6-4, 300-pounder will have the opportunity to be an integral piece of the group in the fall.

Bowers started five games at end last season and DeLoach started three, providing the Rebels with further experience up front.

Lockett was redshirted last season but came on strong in the spring, collecting eight tackles, 2.0 TFLs, one QB sack and one forced fumble in the spring game. Although not up to the desired size for the position, Lockett has tremendous upside and will contribute in the future as he continues to mature.

Returning Starters: Marcus Tillman, Greg Hardy, Peria Jerry, Brandon Jenkins

Other Key Returnees: Jeremy Garrett, Kentrell Lockett, Viciente DeLoach, Chris Bowers, Daverin Geralds, Cecil Frison, LaMark Armour

Key Signees: Ted Laurent, Lawon Scott, Justin Sanders

Key Losses: none


Sophomore Marcus Tillman

On the line’s progress since last season:

“We are much better than we were last year. We have more depth, and we are all on the same page. We’re all hungry and can’t wait to go out and make plays.”

On his own progression over the last year:

“Last year I was trying to learn, but this year I understand everything and I know how it looks. I’ve experienced a lot which has helped me out as I prepare for next season.”

On his outlook of the defense for next season:

“I think (the line) is going to lead the defense next year. As a whole, we have the potential to be better than last year. If you have a good defensive line, it makes it harder for the opposing offense both in the passing game and in the running game. I think it will help us overall next season.”

On the leaders of the group:

“There are so many guys that lead our group. Jeremy Garrett and Brandon Jenkins have led us since I arrived on campus, giving us little tips and helping us along the way. It is hard for the coaches to give the players everything they need, because we are the ones that have to do it. The older guys have experienced more and know things that you can’t just teach. It has helped a lot.”

Defensive Line coach Ryan Nielsen

On the progress that has been made so far:

“You can see how the guys have matured physically, they are getting a lot bigger and they look stronger. It is going to be an exciting year. I think we will have a very good defensive line.”

On Marcus Tillman:

“Marcus (Tillman) is around 268, and he looks really big. I’m expecting him to have a good season. He has become one of our leaders not only on the defensive line, but the whole field. When we needed someone to make a play in the spring, Marcus would go out and make that play. He has come along just as we had expected, and we expect him to have a big year this year.”

On the experience gained from last season:

“We have a lot of experience now. A lot of guys have played in a lot of football games. With the incoming group of freshmen, we will have a real good mix of youth and guys with some experience.”

On Jeremy Garrett as the leader of the defensive line:

“Jeremy leads the group and has played in a lot of games. Everybody looks to Jeremy to make sure everyone is doing the right thing, and it has been good for him.”

Final Analysis: The most experienced unit on the defensive side, the D line may have holes to fill in the rotation but has some solid force in the starting lineup.

Marcus Tillman progressed significantly last season and continues to do so throughout the offseason. With experience, desire and a wealth of athletic ability, Tillman could be a dominant playmaker and the Rebels’ next big star on the defensive side.

Greg Hardy is an incredible athlete who is adaptable to whatever position he is most needed. Maturing at an accelerated rate last season, Hardy could be poised for a break-out year, going from heralded freshmen to game-changer.

Defensive Coordinator John Thompson and line coach Ryan Nielsen have numerous players that could see time on the line next fall. A group that was inexperienced headed into last season will be much improved and has the potential to emerge as the strength of the defense, depending on the overall progress made and depth secured leading up to Memphis on September 1.

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