OXFORD • As Ole Miss works through August camp preparing true freshmen to play at multiple positions on offense there’s less talk of first-year guys breaking through on defense.
Not that newcomers aren’t needed.
The Rebels return eight starters from a defense that hasn’t seen much success, and experienced depth is not an abundant resource.
However, Ole Miss coach Matt Luke and his staff were able to fill gaps with junior college transfers more on defense than on offense.
Juco transfers Sam Williams at outside linebacker and Jonathan Haynes at strong safety are listed as starters on the preseason depth chart.
Lakia Henry, ranked the nation’s No. 1 inside linebacker on the 247Sports.com composite list, will have tougher time earned a starting job for the season opener at Memphis with returning production ahead of him in MoMo Sanogo and Willie Hibbler.
Henry has a good chance to work his way into the playing rotation as the Rebels move to a 3-4 under new coordinator Mike MacIntyre.
Williams – whose 17½ sacks at NEMCC tied for first nationally among junior colleges – and Haynes were mid-year signees and went through spring drills.
Henry signed in February.
MacIntyre says Henry will get extra attention throughout camp.
“Jonathan and Sam had excellent springs, and they’re doing really well. We expect them to help us right away. Lakia, we’re going to rapidly push him to see if he can. We believe he can. We feel like all three of those guys are going to be big in our situation, but we’ve seen Jonathan and Sam on the grass in practice, and they’ve responded really well. They’ve really taken great strides. We definitely hope Lakia does the same thing,” MacIntyre said.
Williams’ position is new in the defense, and several guys who had a hand in the dirt as defensive ends – as Williams did at Northeast Community College – are now standing up as linebackers.
Haynes, who played at Jones County Junior College, is currently in the spot occupied last year by Zedrick Woods, the Rebels’ second-leading tackler and an NFL Combine invitee.
Coaches sign juco transfers with the expectation that they’re getting a more experienced and mature player who can make a quick impact. Sometimes it works that way.
“Ultimately it’s our job to simplify our system enough to where these guys can come in and contribute and show their athletic ability and help us be in the best possible position to win the game,” outside linebacker coach Tyrone Nix said.
Williams understands the expectation level for the junior college transfers.
“They brought us in to come play. If we don’t fill the roles they brought us in to accomplish then I feel like we’ve failed them,” he said. “If we come in and do what we’re supposed to do I feel like our job is done.”