Ole Miss' Nix ready for new challenge

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

The numbers were staggering last season for Ole Miss' defense.

The Rebels led the nation along with Florida State with 112 tackles for loss. That's an average of 8.62 per game.

They tied for fourth nationally with 39 sacks and held four of their last five opponents to 13 or fewer points.

Other than All-America defensive tackle Peria Jerry, just about all the key pieces are back from that defense.

Tyrone Nix's reaction?

So what.

"I'm not concerned with what we did last season. I'm concerned with this unit and that they can be as good as they can be," said Nix, entering his second season as the Ole Miss defensive coordinator.

"It's different guys, a different team and a different schedule. Nothing stays the same, and we've got to get better. As long as this team and this defense plays up to their expectations, I'll have no complaints."

One thing we know about Nix's defense in 2009 is that it's going to be an attacking, in-your-face, pressure defense. It's the way he played the game as a standout linebacker at Southern Miss in the early 1990s and the way he's coached the game at Southern Miss, South Carolina and now Ole Miss.

When you start talking about some of most underrated defensive coordinators in college football, the 36-year-old Nix is right there at the top.

But, then, if the Rebels pick up defensively next season where they left off a year ago and make a run at their first SEC championship in more than 40 years, Nix isn't going to be underrated for much longer.

The heart of Ole Miss' defense will again be the defensive line. Nix thinks he will be able to go eight deep across the defensive front next season, especially with the emergence this spring of tackle Jerrell Powe.

Playing on the defensive line in Nix's system is akin to playing receiver at Florida back in the Fun 'N Gun days under Steve Spurrier.

"We want athletic guys, guys who can run," Nix said. "That's why we do so many stunts and use so much movement, to allow all those guys to make plays. We don't ask our linemen to eat up blocks and keep offensive linemen off our linebackers. We want them to make plays, and that's what they've done."

The wild card for Ole Miss' defensive line next fall will be the health of end Greg Hardy, who's coming off foot surgery and didn't participate in the spring. Hardy was plagued by the injury all last season, but still finished with 8.5 sacks in nine games.

"We're hoping he's full speed," Nix said. "The closest he came to full speed last year was against the Gators, and he made an impact in that game ... as we all know."

Hardy was all over Florida quarterback Tim Tebow in the Swamp, and the Rebels upset the Gators 31-30.

When Hardy's right, both mentally and physically, he's one of the most feared pass-rushers in college football.

"We hope he's right 14 times next year," Nix cracked.

Turning serious, Nix said Hardy has a few things to prove to people next season about what kind of player he truly is.

"I think he wants to answer some questions for a few people who've maybe wondered about his ability to come out and play week in and week out," Nix said. "I can tell you this: His attitude has been great. He's been on time. He's been to all the meetings. He's done all the little things right.

"If you do all the little things, big things will happen."

Cornerback was the area where the Rebels were the thinnest last season, but Nix feels better about his guys back there coming out of the spring.

"There were just so many unknowns going into last year, but our kids have picked up where they left off in the bowl game," said Nix, adding that Marshay Green had an outstanding spring and that Cassius Vaughn was one of the most improved players on defense.

Nix also feels better about his depth at cornerback. Jeremy McGee understands the position better now after coming to Ole Miss as a running back when he transferred in from UCLA. The other backup at cornerback is Marcus Temple, and Nix said not to be surprised if a couple of freshmen break into the rotation in nickel and dime packages.

"I think they'll have a chance," Nix said. "If they're ready to roll, we're going to give them a shot."