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Sugar Bowl: A glimpse of DL future for Ole Miss

NEW ORLEANS – Ole Miss gets a glimpse of its defensive line future Friday. If it goes well, the Rebels will have a chance for a historic win for the program.

All-America defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche will not play in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma State, an announcement Rebels coach Hugh Freeze made in late December when the team broke from Oxford on Christmas break.

Nkemdiche, the nation’s No. 1-rated recruit in the 2013 signing class, was suspended following an incident at an upscale Atlanta hotel that left him with a charge of misdemeanor marijuana possession.

That’s the kind of notoriety Breeland Speaks has successfully avoided this week.

“I have family in New Orleans. I’ve been pretty much spending my time with them, trying to stay out of the spotlight, the limelight, or whatever you call it,” said Speaks, a redshirt freshman from Jackson, who will help replace Nkemdiche. “I’m trying to do my own thing, make sure I stay out of the way and make sure we have a good trip down here. It is a business trip.”

Junior college transfer D.J. Jones will start at tackle alongside senior Woodrow Hamilton at nose.

Speaks will play extensively, and Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said freshman tackle Ross Donelly could get 10-15 snaps.

Back in August, Wommack and Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze were unsure if they wanted to play or redshirt Donelly but threw him in the mixer for such a time as this. He has appeared in six games.

“We are aware of their personnel adjustments, but they’re still a very talented defensive line unit,” Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich said. “They’re still a force to be reckoned with.”

Jones expects to play 20 or 30 more snaps and says he’s focused on his conditioning the last couple of weeks.

An Ole Miss defensive line that is also missing starting end Fadol Brown, who is out after foot surgery, will match up against an Oklahoma State offensive line that has been unable to spark a consistent run game and ranks 86th in the country in sacks allowed at 2.42 per game.

Pass rush was a big part of the Rebels’ success in the regular season finale when they sacked Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott seven times. Nkemdiche was a big part of that with 1.5 sacks, half his total for the season.

Nkemdiche is the constant target of double-teams and can often be seen dominating an opposing lineman, but in sheer production there’s little difference between he, Speaks and Jones.

Nkemdiche has 29 total tackles and seven tackles-for-loss.

Speaks has 30 tackles, five tackles-for-loss and a sack, while Jones has 35 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss and three sacks.

Ole Miss coaches are fine with Speaks in the spotlight so long as it comes for his on-field efforts.

“Robert’s not going to be with us next year. He’s not with us now,” Speaks said. “I just look at this as this is going to be D line next year, so let’s see what I can do. Let’s see what we can do without 5.”

By Parrish Alford, Daily Journal