The “Big Four.”
That’s what Starkville’s Kobe Jones affectionately calls himself, Meridian’s Raekwon Davis, Noxubee County’s Jeffery Simmons and Wayne County’s Benito Jones.
The group makes up a portion of elite defensive linemen selected to the 2015 Dandy Dozen, and each is ranked among the top 300 players in the class of 2016 according to ESPN.
But a more accurate way to showcase the sheer depth at the position in Mississippi would be the Big 10, 11 or 12. This year, the strength along the defensive lines stretches the entire state.
According to 247Sports, 15 of Mississippi’s top 55 seniors are defensive linemen. They come from schools as small as Bassfield in Class 2A (defensive tackle Jerome Johnson) and extend to places like Starkville, where the three-headed monster of Kobe Jones, Maleke Bell and Lorenzo Dantzler formed a front that terrorized offenses last season.
There’s room for debate about who’s the best in the state. Right now, Benito Jones holds the heavyweight title in the rankings. Even without having taken a snap against Wayne County, Kobe Jones can tell why.
“Oh man, Benito,” Kobe Jones said. “Off film you can see he has a lot of speed and power.”
Benito Jones’ speed, agility and ability to not rely on his size to control blockers is what makes the Ole Miss commit one of the best, most fundamentally sound linemen in Mississippi.
“His first three steps are as fast as anybody in the 29 years of coaching that I’ve been associated with,” Wayne County coach Todd Mangum said.
A defensive lineman’s ability to penetrate and force his way into the backfield is the Holy Grail.
It’s the first thing Noxubee County coach Tyrone Shorter noticed four years ago in Jeffery Simmons.
Boy, is he glad he did.
“We had a coaches meeting where we talked about moving him up to varsity,” Shorter said. “He was already practicing with the varsity team and destroying our scout team offense. A lot of scouts were drooling out the mouth when they saw him that young. We knew he was going to be that guy.”
Simmons lived up to expectations. In 2014, the 6-foot-4, 270-pound edge rusher racked up 107 tackles (59 solo), 14.5 tackles for loss, 15.5 sacks, eight forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries. Noxubee County went on to win the Class 4A state championship 48-27 over St. Stanislaus, the highest-scoring team in the state with the nation’s leading passer.
This year, the Tigers’ non-region schedule is a gauntlet. They’ll face Starkville and Meridian, which also boast loaded defensive fronts.
“Around the state of Mississippi, the defensive line and the depth chart, it’s so talented,” Simmons said. “We have the size, speed and if we all choose to go to the same school, that will probably be one of the best teams in the country.”
Even the ones who are a work in progress find ways to stand out.
Take South Panola’s Drelan Porter. At 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, Porter is likely a hybrid linebacker at the next level, not a defensive end.
In 2014, Porter accumulated 67 solo tackles, 24 tackles for loss and six sacks.
His speed found a way to compensate for the measurables he lacks by disrupting a team’s offensive progress, reaching the quarterback with a lethal first step.
That could be South Panola’s edge in getting back to the 6A title game this December.
It’s a similar situation with Davis, who hadn’t played a lot of organized football before last season.
The monstrous, 6-foot-7.5, 318-pounder has the physical attributes that make him the most imposing player in the state. During the offseason, his motor needed some work.
Going from raw to polished takes time. After dominating the camp circuit and proving his ability to handle his own against the nation’s top offensive linemen at Nike Football’s The Opening, Davis is ready to translate those skills to Friday nights.
“He’s accepted the work part of it,” Meridian coach Larry Weems said. “He’s understanding the pad level better. He knows he’s going to get double-teamed all the time. I can’t stop them from putting two or three on (him). What he has to do is use his technique and let his team run.”
National recruiting analysts have already noted something special with Mississippi’s talent across the board in 2016.
In evaluating the depth of this state’s defensive linemen alone, this class should leave a huge impact on Mississippi for years to come.
“This is an awesome class of defensive linemen in Mississippi,” 247Sports director of scouting Barton Simmons said. “Regardless of population, Mississippi has one of the best defensive line crops of any state in the country for 2016. There’s edge athleticism, size on the inside and there’s depth. I just think this is a special year where the stars have aligned up front.”
Contact Courtney Cronin at (601) 961-7091 or email@example.com. Follow @CourtneyRCronin on Twitter.
A look at five under-the-radar defensive linemen
Korbin Harmon, DE, Oxford
The 6-foot-4, 232-pounder notched 65 tackles (11 solo), six for loss, five sacks and nine QB hurries as a junior. He runs around a 4.7-4.8 second 40-yard dash, which is good considering his size. His ability as a pass rusher makes him a threat coming off the edge.
Maleke Bell, DE, Starkville
Bell is the glue that holds Starkville’s defensive line together. He started receiving varsity snaps as a ninth-grader and it’s paid dividends for the Yellowjackets front unit. He’s hard to block at 270 pounds, plays low and has good leverage.
Julius Turner, DT, Meridian
Lousiana Tech got a steal in this Meridian defensive tackle. Turner has active hands, an aggressive first step and plays with a high motor. He recorded 42 tackles (23 solo), 15 for loss and four sacks in 2014.
Hal Northern, DT, Rosa Fort
Northern moves well for his size (6-foot-2, 290 pounds) despite lacking a bit of length. One thing certainly makes him stand out — Northern can and does use his frame to defend not one but two gaps at a time.
Jacques Turner, DE, D’Iberville
If you aren’t familiar with this name now, you will be by the end of the season. He’s undersized at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds but makes up for that with his ability to quickly disrupt progress in the backfield, recording 84 tackles (55 solo), nine for loss and 4.5 sacks last year.