NEW ORLEANS, La. -- Coping with defensive absences has been a theme for the season at Ole Miss, but the Rebels will be without their most important defensive piece -- defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche -- in Friday’s Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Rebels coach Hugh Freeze suspended Nkemdiche for the bowl game following his arrest for drug possession earlier this month in Atlanta. That adds to the depth shortage the Rebels already face up front, forcing defensive coordinator Dave Wommack to adjust how he plans to attack Friday’s opponent, Oklahoma State.
“When you’re trying to play eight guys up front and rolling them and you lose, it’s not just Nkemdiche,” Wommack said Tuesday. “For us in the season, we lost Issac Gross, who was a very important part of our defense, before the season even started. Then we had issues with Fadol [Brown] and him being injured and now Robert. So it cuts those eight guys down to fewer guys.
“We had to create some different packages. Some don’t have as many defensive linemen in the game at times, and do some different things to be able to shore up and handle their tempo and everything.”
The good news for the Rebels is that they were already able to rotate through multiple defensive formations, plus they can deploy C.J. Johnson as a hybrid weapon, filling gaps at linebacker and defensive end. The senior started eight games at middle linebacker this year after starting 12 at defensive end as a junior, but Johnson expects to see more time along the defensive line in Friday’s game.
“I’ll definitely take a lot more snaps there than I probably have in the past because we’re lacking a little depth there, but that’s fine,” Johnson said. “I think the guys that we do have, I think they’re going to step up, and they’re going to do a great job for us.”
In Nkemdiche’s absence, younger linemen will play bigger roles. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Breeland Speaks, who made his first career start against Texas A&M when Nkemdiche missed the game with a concussion, likely takes over a starting spot. Wommack said true freshman Ross Donelly could also handle 10 to 15 snaps simply to help alleviate the Rebels’ depth concerns.
And they are definitely a concern up front. An up-tempo offense like Oklahoma State’s can easily wear down the Rebels’ defense if they struggle to get off the field and their snap count climbs.
Although his team still won the game, Ole Miss defensive end John Youngblood still remembers how Alabama nearly rallied from a 30-10 hole to beat the Rebels in September. Against a worn-out defense, the Crimson Tide cut Ole Miss’ lead to 43-37 in the closing minutes before the Rebels finally held on for the win.
“The middle of the fourth quarter against Alabama, Coach Freeze was yelling, ‘This is a tired defense!’ He’s wondering what the heck was going on,” Youngblood recalled. “Then after the game, we watched the film and the defense had  snaps after that game.”
Youngblood knows the 503 yards of total offense Ole Miss surrendered to Alabama – and the physical toll on the defense felt that night – could be highly similar against Oklahoma State if the Cowboys’ offense has its way.
“I’m me personally thinking I’m going to be really tired,” he laughed.
It helps that Wommack’s defense practices against a Rebels offense that has up-tempo capabilities, but there is a big difference between practice and scrimmages and doing it for a full 60 minutes.
“In practice, we do a segment where the tempo’s really fast so we’re kind of used to it,” defensive back Trae Elston said. “But you’re never used to the tempo unless it’s game-ready, so we’ve got to see it in a game.”
Johnson said the key on Friday – as it is against most up-tempo offenses – will be to win on first down. If the Rebels can limit Oklahoma State’s chunk plays and get off the field with some regularity, the Cowboys’ pace won’t be so destructive.
However, if Oklahoma State is able to move the chains and extend drives – and that’s the modus operandi for an offense that averages 75.2 plays and 489.5 yards per game – the Rebels’ remaining big guys up front know they will be in for a long night.
“If we keep it at 60 or 70 snaps for the defense, if we stay in that range, I think we’ll do just fine just because that’s about the norm for every game,” Youngblood said. “But if their offense gets going and it’s 80, 90 snaps, we’re going to get tired and especially since we’re kind of going thin, then it may not be pretty.
“We’ll have to dig deep in that case.”