October 8, 2010 8:54:00 AM
OXFORD -- Injured and ineffective, the University of Mississippi football team''s defense gets a much-needed breather this weekend with an off date before facing top-ranked Alabama on Oct. 16.
"This couldn''t come at a better time," Mississippi coach Houston Nutt said. "We''ve got a lot of guys in the training room."
Ole Miss ranks last in the Southeastern Conference in scoring defense, giving up more than 32 points per game. It''s been a surprising fall for the group, which was ranked among the top half of the Southeastern Conference in most major categories over the past two years and returned several veterans.
Part of the struggles can be blamed on injuries. Veteran defensive end Kentrell Lockett is out for the season with a knee injury, while the secondary has been decimated by various ailments. Safety Johnny Brown is nursing a sore knee while safety Brishen Mathews and cornerbacks Jeremy McGee, Charles Sawyer and Marcus Temple have all suffered recent concussions.
"Hopefully we''ll get all these injured guys back," Nutt said. "But I''m a little concerned. With these concussions, it''s treated so much more differently than in the past. The (doctors) go a step further, which they should and I''m not criticizing it. But it''s a much more thorough examination before they release them."
Though injuries have taken a toll, some of the problems can be traced back to simply being ineffective. The Rebels'' defensive line hasn''t been nearly as productive as hoped, and opposing quarterbacks have taken advantage of the extra time to throw.
Defensive end Wayne Dorsey, a highly-regarded 6-foot-6, 265-pound junior college transfer, has struggled so much that he might lose his starting job. Other candidates at defensive end include sophomores Gerald Rivers and Jason Jones, and freshmen Delvin Jones and Carlos Thompson.
But none of them have provided the consistency Nutt desires. It''s been so rough that converted linebacker D.T. Shackelford -- who stands just 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds -- has been the Rebels'' best pass rusher.
"That''s not good," Nutt said with a wry smile.
Even with all of the defensive issues, Ole Miss (3-2, 1-2 SEC) has won two straight games after beating Fresno State and Kentucky. The Rebels have one of the league''s top offenses, averaging nearly 39 points per game, so if the defense can regroup there''s hope for a brutal stretch of games in October that includes Alabama, Arkansas and Auburn.
While the main focus of this week was getting healthy, the Rebels do have an eye toward defending national champion Alabama. Nutt said they were "one of the best teams we''ve ever seen."
Alabama was upset with the Southeastern Conference after its schedule included several opponents that had a bye week before facing the Tide. Considering how well Alabama''s played this season, Nutt didn''t know if the extra time would be very helpful.
"I think everybody should have an open week before they play Alabama," Nutt joked. "They are deep, fast, it is hard to find weaknesses in them."