Ole Miss received a lot of attention for landing the No. 1 player in the nation when Robert Nkemdiche committed to the Rebels on signing day, and while he will be expected to be a key contributor to the defensive line this season and beyond, it’s two sophomores that will be the X-factors on the front four.
Isaac Gross was a standout performer at nose tackle in 2012, and earned SEC All-Freshman honors. As well, he was named to many freshmen All-American teams. Gross finished with 10 tackles for losses, which was good for third on the team, and added 2.5 sacks and 40 tackles in what was an all-around great season. Considering he played at 255 pounds, that is even more remarkable.
The former South Panola prep star is trying to put on weight to become a better anchor against the run, and hold up against the bigger offensive linemen in the conference. Reports are that Gross is tipping the scales at 270 pounds, but if you see him walking around campus, make sure you take him to Ajax Diner and buy him a meal.
He is already a player with a great deal of potential, but if he can get into the 290-pound range and maintain his explosiveness and agility, he can be a future first-round pick in the NFL.
Channing Ward is another former high school All-American, but unlike Gross, he wasn’t as big of contributor as a freshman.
However, Ward did appear in 12 games last season at defensive end and on special teams, racking up 21 total tackles, and will assume a larger role this year. The pressure will be Ward when spring practice starts March 17, and I think he’ll be motivated with Nkemdiche in defensive linemen drills. He will want to show coaches that he’s worthy of holding down a starting end spot opposite this year’s top recruit.
The biggest spotlight will be shown on Nkemdiche, and rightfully so; but, don’t forget about Gross and Ward, because their performances could be the difference between a seven and a nine-win season.
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