Austin Peay Mississippi Football

Mississippi defensive lineman Sam Williams (7) runs to score after recovering a fumble during an NCAA college football game against Austin Peay in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Bruce Newman)

OXFORD – After giving up a shade under 40 points per game in 2020, the Ole Miss defense needed an overhaul.

And a big part of the makeover has happened up front.

Through two games, the Rebels (2-0) are surrendering 20.5 points per game. Just as telling of the turnaround are the Ole Miss sack numbers. The Rebels are averaging 3.5 sacks per game, tied for 19th nationally with the likes of mighty Alabama. Last season, that number was just 1.6, tied for 98th nationally.

No, two games isn’t a particularly large sample size to measure change. But listening to bookend defensive ends Cedric Johnson and Sam Williams, the progress in sacks hasn’t happened by accident and it’s going to be a big part of their plans going forward.

“Me and Sam, we both are fast,” Johnson, a sophomore, said. “Coach (Randall) Joyner, he’s really been a huge part of that, just teaching us new things to do new techniques, new ways to set things up, just making us better pass rushers overall. And not just me and Sam. The whole D-line.”

Williams leads Ole Miss and is tied for second nationally with three sacks, two of which came against Austin Peay. The senior also scored a touchdown against the Governors, a 33-yard scoop and score following his own strip sack.

The Rebels have used a 3-2-6 defense for large portions of the season, a change from what their base was a season ago. While scheme contributes to Johnson’s and Williams’ productivity, a lot of it is the duo simply digging deep.

It’s about wanting it more than the guy on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage.

“You just have to have heart. You have to have a motor. You just have to be able to go,” Johnson said. “As long as you got a motor, you can go.”

On that front, there’s isn’t anyone better than Johnson, who plays with as much energy as any young player Williams has been around.

Everything is a competition between the two ends, which brings out the best in both players. Iron sharpens iron.

“(Johnson’s) a hard working guy. He's a competitive guy. We talk in practice, ‘I’ll beat you to the ball, or ‘I’ll get a sack before you.’ I love his effort. And I love how he's dedicated to the team,” Williams said. “I've never seen a young guy like that go so hard. He’s got a bright future. I know that, for sure.”

Louisville’s Malik Cunningham provided his own set of challenges for the Rebels as a dual-threat quarterback, but he was held largely in check. Austin Peay’s Draylen Ellis really never had much of a chance against the Ole Miss defense, save for a few penalties leading to major yardage.

Tulane (1-1), however, will provide a challenge. The Green Wave, averaging better than 50 points per game, have allowed four sacks this season; all four came in a tight 40-35 loss to then-No. 2 Oklahoma. Freshman quarterback Michael Pratt is notoriously hard to bring down in the backfield consistently as well — he had just two games last season where he ended up with negative rushing yards.

Johnson recognizes the challenge at hand and knows he, Williams and the defense will have to bring their A-game Saturday evening.

If the first two games of the season are any indication, the Rebels are ready.

“They’re a solid team, for sure. Their O-line is pretty good. I think they’re definitely going to be a tough challenge. But I think we’re up for it. We’re going to come out there and dominate. That’s the plan, either way.”

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