After 2 years of struggling, Ole Miss needs better defense

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi opens preseason camp feeling good about its ability to put points on the scoreboard.

If the Rebels can figure out how to stop anybody, they might be a candidate for some surprise wins in the Southeastern Conference this fall.

Defense has been a huge problem over the past two seasons for the Rebels, who have given up more than 34 points per game during that span. The inability to stop opposing teams led to a 5-7 record in 2016 and a 6-6 mark last year despite a consistently productive offense.

Second-year coach Matt Luke expects to put up different numbers this fall, even though the Rebels still have a lot of unanswered questions on defense when camp begins Friday.

"I think continuity is huge, being in the second year of the same system," Luke said Thursday during the program's on-campus media day. "Everybody is one year better."

Ole Miss is not eligible for postseason play for a second straight season because of punishment related to NCAA infractions that took place under previous coaches. The program is still appealing the postseason ban for this season, and there is a slim chance that the NCAA's decision will be reversed.

Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork said he didn't know a timetable for the NCAA's final decision other than he expects it sometime this fall. Several players said speculating about the outcome amounts to wasted energy.

"I try not to think about it too much just because I don't know the details behind it, I don't know the probability," tight end Dawson Knox said. "There's nothing we can do to have any type of impact, so I just try to focus on myself and the team and do as much as we can to get better."

Even if the postseason ban is reversed, the Rebels would still have to win six games to take advantage. That might be a challenge if the defense doesn't improve.

"Year two is always better," defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said. "I think the guys have a better command of the defense and there's a better idea of what expectations are for them. We're going to keep the same menu as far as the defense so there should be a lot of familiarity."

The Rebels have some experience, especially along the defensive line and in the secondary. Josiah Coatney, a 6-foot-4, 302-pound tackle, was third on the team with 65 tackles last season, including eight for a loss.

Senior safety Zedrick Woods has more than 150 tackles over the past three seasons.

"We're pretty good — we've just got to play the way we're capable of playing," Coatney said. "There's really not much to it. It's just in the SEC one mistake by one person can cause a touchdown. We don't get second chances. We've got to execute every drive."

Luke enters his second season in a more stable environment than last summer, when the co-offensive coordinator was named the interim coach in July following the surprise resignation of Hugh Freeze .

The 41-year-old Luke was widely considered a short-term fix for the program but earned the full-time job after a competitive season that included a win over rival Mississippi State.

It was no small feat considering Freeze's resignation and the continuing fallout from punishment for the NCAA infractions. Now, with most of the worst penalties behind the program, Luke can focus on trying to make the Rebels a threat in the SEC.

"When you go through a tough time, it does one of two things. It pushes you apart or pulls you together," Luke said. "The guys who have been through this and stuck together have really bonded and play for each other. So we want to continue that culture and take the next step."


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