Ole Miss' Nix gets another shot at Gamecocks

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Tyrone Nix doesn’t harbor any ill feelings.

In fact, he calls Steve Spurrier a winner that taught him a lot about expectations and meeting those expectations.

So, no, Nix and Spurrier didn’t part on bad terms following the 2007 season when the Gamecocks unraveled down the stretch and lost their last five games. A big part of that nosedive was a defense that went belly-up and yielded a total of 99 points in back-to-back games to Arkansas and Florida.

The Head Ball Coach didn’t fire Nix, but he also wasn’t giving him any assurances that he would keep the defensive coordinator title.

Not long after Houston Nutt made the overnight jump from Arkansas to Ole Miss, one of his first calls was to Nix. Nutt was looking for somebody to run the Rebels’ defense, somebody who would come in and implement an aggressive, attacking style.

“I’d say it’s worked out for everybody,” said Nix, who will return to Williams-Brice Stadium for the first time Thursday night after spending three years at South Carolina from 2005 to 07.

“I’ve got a lot of good memories at South Carolina, but some disappointing ones as well. We did some things that hadn’t been done there during my time there. We beat Florida, beat Tennessee, beat Georgia. We won some big games. We just didn’t do it on a consistent basis.”

Nix said he and Spurrier have talked several times since his departure.

“He told me at the time, ‘Coach, just because people leave doesn’t mean you have to be enemies,’” Nix said. “Steve’s a friend of mine, and I feel like I could call on him if I needed something.

“It’s college football. Things change and coaches change.”

Nix’s defense in his first season at Ole Miss brought new meaning to pressing the issue. The Rebels tied for the national lead with 111 tackles for loss and were fourth nationally with 38 sacks.

Their start statistically this season hasn’t been nearly that impressive, but the Rebels also haven’t had to show a whole lot in blowout wins over Memphis and Southeastern Louisiana.

Plus, Nix isn’t caught up in winning the numbers game. He’s caught up in winning the game.

He knows his defense will be tested for the first time this season against the Gamecocks.

“I think our guys realize we still haven’t played to our potential and that we still must get better,” Nix said. “We need to get better in a hurry, because we’re in for a heck of a challenge Thursday night.

“We have to play harder. We have to become more physical, and we have to tackle well. We’re not where we need to be. Hopefully, we’ll be closer to that goal Thursday.”

One of Ole Miss’ worst performances defensively last season came against South Carolina when quarterback Chris Smelley had a career day and threw for 327 yards in a 31-24 win over the Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

That was the exception for Nix’s defensive unit, which played its best football during the Rebels’ six-game winning streak to end the season.

“We went out and played last Saturday and weren’t as good as we wanted to be, but we made improvement,” Nix said. “As long as we can continue to improve and do the things that we do well, we ought to be a team at the end of the year that’s at our best.”

Nutt wouldn’t trade Nix for any defensive coordinator in the country. Even when Nix was at Southern Miss, Nutt remembers being duly impressed with the energy and passion Nix’s defenses played with on every snap.

His style is what Nutt calls "old school," even though Nix, at 36, is one of the youngest defensive coordinators in college football.

“I think Tyrone is really a very underrated guy, a very underrated coordinator,” Nutt said. “I think he’s one of the best in the country. He has a tremendous mind, but it goes a little bit further than that. He gets close to the players, but yet he knows when to draw that line. He knows there’s a fine line between being a friend and then holding them accountable.

“He turns them into men.”

Nix looks forward to seeing many of the players he coached at South Carolina, although he doesn’t necessarily relish playing against them. He remains extremely close to All-SEC senior outside linebacker Eric Norwood and lobbied extensively for Norwood to get into school after he was denied admission three times at South Carolina.

Nix also has a great deal of respect for Ellis Johnson, the guy who replaced him as the head of the defense at South Carolina.

“I think the changes were good for everybody,” Nix said. “I think Carolina definitely improved in hiring Ellis. He’s a tremendous coordinator and has done an outstanding job, and his kids play that way.

“So I think Carolina people are happy, and I hope Ole Miss people are happy. I know I’m happy.”