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Rebels Continue Arkansas Preparations

Head coach Hugh Freeze meets with members of the media following Wednesday's practice.

Robert Nkemdiche will return against Arkansas, having missed the LSU and Idaho games after suffering a hamstring injury against Texas A&M. The freshman defensive lineman has played in and started six games, recording 15 total tackles (11 solo) and four tackles for loss.

"He looks really good," defensive line coach Chris Kiffin said. "He looks quick and light on his feet. We just got make sure he's 100 percent. He's still feeling it a little bit out here. He's down 15 pounds. I don't know if that's a good thing or bad thing, but he looks really quick out here. It's just him picking up the mental side again."

Nkemdiche will move inside to defensive tackle, where he started against Alabama, while junior Bryon Bennett will remain outside at defensive end, where he started the last three games.

"That's the plan with who we got right now with C.J. (Johnson) being out for the year and Bryon doing a good job out there," Kiffin said. "Maybe that's Rob's future, so that's where we're at right now.

"He's physical enough. He gives those guys problems inside because of how quick he is, and he's not afraid to get physical. It's just natural for him."

Nkemidche and the Ole Miss defense will be tasked with an Arkansas offense that has rushed for at least 200 yards in six of nine games and average 211.2 rushing yards per game, which ranks third in the SEC. The Razorbacks also lead the league and rank fifth nationally allowing just 0.78 sacks per game.

On the offensive line, Arkansas has opened each of the last four games with the same five starters, including a pair of freshman guards in Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper, who have started each of the last five games.

"They look like freshmen that are getting better every game," said defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, of Kirkland and Skipper. "They didn't play them as much early in the season. Both of them are going to be really good football players. You see them make mistakes at times, but they're getting better every time."

Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack meets with members of the media following Tuesday's practice.

'We're not afraid to use any of the four'

With senior running back Jeff Scott out each of the last two games with a thigh bruise, sophomore running backs I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton have carried the load on the ground for the Rebels.

Mathers carried the ball 12 times for 51 yards against LSU, then notched his first career 100-yard rushing game with 138 yards on 14 carries, including a career-long 64-yard run for a touchdown, against Idaho.

Walton rushed for two touchdowns in both games, as he set career highs with 19 carries for 106 yards against the Tigers, then rushed 11 times for 86 yards against Vandals. With those four scores, he now leads the team with five rushing touchdowns this year.

"They took the bull by the horns, so to speak," running backs coach Derrick Nix said. "It's never been about their ability. They had just been waiting for the opportunity to get on the field and show what they could do. 

"I'm glad a year ago they got the little experience that they did, so right now, they don't any type of stage fright, and the big lights don't bother them at all. They just go out and perform to their capabilities and do the things they could always do."

The Idaho game was also an opportunity for freshmen Mark Dodson and Kailo Moore, as Dodson set career highs with seven carries for 57 rushing yards and recorded a 30-yard touchdown catch, the first score of his career.

"He earned the right to get some looks," said head coach Hugh Freeze, of Dodson. "I'm not afraid at all to play him. He'll probably get a carry or two."

"He's had more excitement and enthusiasm about practice," Nix added. "Not that he didn't have it all year but you could see more of a bounce in his step. I feel like he has a real shot of helping us out on Saturday."

The status of Scott for Saturday remains uncertain, but Freeze is confident about his other four running backs.

"I like the way they're going about their business," he said. "They're taking the chances they have been given and made the most of it. All four of them have looked good in some things this week. We're not afraid to use any of the four. Jeff, I'm not sure. We'll have to make that call tomorrow."

Running backs coach Derrick Nix meets with members of the media following Wednesday's practice.

Tunsil, Golson Continue To Progress

Freshman offensive linemen Laremy Tunsil and Austin Golson have played in every game this season, with Tunsil starting five games at left tackle and Golson playing extensively at guard.

"Laremy has played solid the entire time," Freeze said. "He's really special. It's a little easier to play on the edge. We threw Austin in the middle in that first game, and there is a lot of different things happening in there. It's been more of a process, but he's improving and not making as many mistakes."

Offensive line coach Matt Luke has also been pleased with Tunsil and Golson.

"He does a lot of things well," said Luke, of Tunsil. "He can get bigger and stronger, but technically, that's what makes him special. He does a lot of things naturally. He's good with his hands and has a really good base with his lower body. He's a natural pass protector. We're very fortunate to have him. He's playing really well overall."

"He's probably not the prototypical guard," said Luke, of Golson. "He's more of tackle, but because of the seniors we have at tackle, he has stepped in there for us and played it well for 40-50 snaps a game at least.

Tunsil's emergence at left tackle, where he has started each of the last four games, has allowed senior offensive lineman Emmanuel McCray to move around and contribute at both tackle position, left guard and tight end, when the Rebels are in their six offensive lineman set.

A strong Arkansas defensive line is led by senior defensive end Chris Smith, who is tied for second in the SEC and tied for 13th nationally with 7.0 sacks. As a team, the Razorbacks rank third in the SEC and tied for 27th nationally with 22.0 sacks.

"They're very good," Luke said. "Their front four collectively is as good as we have seen. 86 (Trey Flowers), 42 (Smith), 91 (Darius Philon), 54 (Byran Jones), all those guys are good players. I have been very impressed."

Offensive line coach Matt Luke meets with members of the media following Wednesday's practice.

Rebels Enter Second Bye Week



Ole Miss is 5-3 for the second straight year, as it enters its second bye week of the year before a final four-game stretch starting with Arkansas on Nov. 9 from Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The previous stretch of games included three straight losses, then back-to-back wins over then-No. 6 LSU and Idaho.

"We could easily have a couple more wins, and we could easily have a couple more losses," head coach Hugh Freeze said. "You're mind usually concentrates on the ones you let get away, but you have to move on from those.  Winning the last two games has helped tremendously with that.  I believe we have gotten better at mostly every spot."

"(5-3 this year) feels a lot different because we have been through the meat of our schedule," junior quarterback Bo Wallace said "But at the same time, every SEC team is great, and we know we can't take a week off, or somebody will come up and beat you."

Entering the bye week, Freeze said he does think they can get quite a few of players back who didn't suffer season-ending injuries.

"I'm confident that Mike Hilton will be back, as well as Isaac Gross being healthy," Freeze said. "Charles Sawyer, we'll hold out this week and Denzel Nkemdiche, we held out the other night, and I see no reason for him to not be ready.  Robert Nkemdiche and Jeff Scott, I'll need to wait until next Monday to better answer that, but we're hopeful on them. Carlos Thompson, I am doubtful on, we're getting concerned on his nerve not firing in his arm, so hopefully we can catch on soon and he'll be back in a couple of weeks."

Preparation for Arkansas will start on Thursday, Freeze said, and they will get in an extra practice on Sunday night.

"This week will certainly help that because we'll need those guys for this stretch run that we have coming up with the three SEC games and the one out of conference game," Freeze said. "It gives us coaches a lot of time to start self-scouting us, and give us a jump start against Arkansas and scouting other opponents, as well as plan what we would like to add, take out or just plan a little differently.  We'll also get a chance to look at some young guys in practice too, and get us some depth."

A win over Arkansas would make the Rebels bowl eligible for the second straight year under Freeze. In this week's bowl projections, Greg Ostendorf from ESPN has Ole Miss in the Music City Bowl, while Jerry Palm from CBS Sports has them in the Gator Bowl.

"We all want to win these games, and let all that care of itself," Wallace said. "We know if we win these games, we'll be in a big-time bowl. And that's our goal. Our goal is not just getting to a bowl game this year; it's going to a big bowl game. It's taking that next step for our program."


"A few guys talk about it but not too often," junior defensive tackle Bryon Bennett said. "We try to keep a narrow focus and not look at the big picture. We know a lot of our remaining games are home, which is always an advantage for us with the energy and excitement."


Wallace, Brunetti Improve Decision-Making



Last year, Wallace threw 22 touchdown passes compared to 17 interceptions. Through eight games year, he has thrown 11 touchdowns to three interceptions. His interception ratio (interceptions per pass attempt) improvement from last year to this year ranks second in the SEC and sixth nationally.


Wallace also ranks fifth in the SEC and 31st nationally in total offense (266.2 ypg) and 5th in the SEC and 36th nationally in passing (247.0). His backup, senior Barry Brunetti, has completed 12-of-15 passes for 129 yards and five touchdowns in his last five games.


"It's been an on-going endeavor since last spring," Freeze said. "I think Dan Werner has done a really nice job of decreasing the package so there is no question of what to do and a clear understanding of what your read should be.  As the year has gone on we continue to cut back to make sure we put ourselves in position to take care of the ball and there should be no reason for us to not have great understanding of exactly what you're supposed to do and when.  


"I have to give a lot of credit to Dan Werner, as well as those two kids (Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti).  We must always take care of the football, and we've done a good job putting an emphasis on that also.  We've also been able to run the ball, which is a huge thing for anyone that understands what our offense is like.  When you're able to run the ball it gives you a little more time to throw, and the decisions become better."


Wallace's improved decision-making has even been apparent to him mid-play during games this year.


"It's just better decisions," Wallace said. "There have been a couple times rolling out, especially against LSU, I was thinking middle of the play, 'Last year, I probably try to fit the ball in there,' but then continuing to run and try to do as much as I can without trying to do too much. That has really helped me out."


Bennett Settling In At Defensive End



After playing the first five games, including two starts at defensive tackle, junior Bryon Bennett has started each of the past three game at defensive end, due in part to a season-ending injury to junior defensive end C.J. Johnson, as well as injuries to freshman defensive end Robert Nkemdiche and junior defensive end Carlos Thompson.


"He likes defensive end," Freeze said. "He's played two really solid games there. He's a physical guy. His motor turns up out there, it seems like. Moving forward, it will be interesting for us to look at what the best combination is and how to go about getting our best players on the field. I have been as pleased as I have been in my year and a half with him."


In the last two games, Bennett has three tackles including a solo tackle and a tackle for loss. With Bennett at defensive end, the defense has recorded five sacks in those games, including a season-high three sacks against LSU.


"It's exciting," said Bennett, of defensive end. "There's more room to roam around. I have to back further off the ball to make sure I'm not offside. Other than that, it's a lot of fun."


Bennett said took about two or three practice to adjust to playing defensive end. He gave credit to senior offensive tackles Emmanuel McCray and Pierce Burton, as well as freshman offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, whom he faced in practice. The two biggest adjustments, he said, were his positioning and how he rushed the passer.


"I have to make sure I maintain my outside presence," Bennett said. "To pass rush, I have to run a lot more. Inside, it's a few steps and then you make a move. On the end, you have to run the edge and make sure the quarterback can't bounce outside the pocket."

Head coach Hugh Freeze meets with members of the media following Wednesday's practice.

After going through a "laundry list" on injuries in Monday's weekly press conference, head coach Hugh Freeze had some good news on Wednesday with the possible return of defensive tackle Issac Gross and linebacker Temario Strong.

"It looks like we might get Issac (Gross) and Temario (Strong) back," said Freeze after practice on Wednesday. "Temario surprised us today and was moving around quite a bit better than what they expected. We might get him back. Those are the only two I expect at this point to get back."


Ole Miss was hit particularly hard on the defensive side of the ball, where it is expected to be without starting defensive ends Robert Nkemdiche and C.J. Johnson, as well as starting cornerback Mike Hilton and backup defensive end Carlos Thompson.


"We ain't got but so many," said Freeze Tuesday of defensive line. "We're going to play four down linemen. I really don't know who is playing exactly where right now."


Bryon Bennett, listed as a co-starter at defensive tackle with Carlton Martin, also got some reps at defensive end in practice this week, opposite senior defensive end Cameron Whigham.


"It was fun," said Bennett of defensive end, where he also started against Texas A&M last week. "I played a little in high school, but there's still a lot to get used with adjustments and stuff... There's more reading. It's more fun going against the tackle.


"It's a next-man-up attitude. Everybody is excited for the game and wants this win. We're trying to stay fresh, stay healthy and be ready for the game." 


Defensive lineman Bryon Bennett meets with members of the media following Tuesday's practice.

Starting running back and leading rusher Jeff Scott was held out of practice Tuesday and Wednesday, and Freeze said Wednesday that he doesn't expect him to play on Saturday. The running back position would then fall on I'Tavius Mathers (22 carries, 137 yards for the season) and Jaylen Walton (34 carries, 129 yards).


"I feel good," said Freeze Wednesday of Mathers and Walton. "Both of them have proven they're ready to have that responsibility that comes their way. I have been pleased with their performance and think we'll be fine there."


"I feel like we can pick it up," said Mathers Wednesday. "We always have to be ready. I just have to play my role."


The injuries have also affected the special teams units, such as punt return, where Freeze said Wednesday that wide receiver Korvic Neat would return punts in Scott's absence, with Trae Elston as his backup. 


Cornerback Carlos Davis, who Freeze called "a great cover guy," will be back this week, and the possible return of Strong will also help the special teams units, but Freeze said Tuesday it did take a hit this week, and they're going to have to call on guys to play even more snaps because of injuries.


The injuries may also affect tempo, as Freeze said the Rebels will likely use a similar strategy to last week against Texas A&M.


"We managed the first half not going tempo to try to limit the opportunities that Texas A&M had and get to halftime in the game, and it worked," said Freeze Tuesday. "We were probably more patient than we would be, but it worked, and it gave us a chance at the end. We will probably manage the tempo similarly this week."


 
Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack meets with members of the media following Tuesday's practice.

Offensive line coach Matt Luke meets with members of the media following Wednesday's practice.

VIDEO: Freeze, Werner, Heard

Head coach Hugh Freeze recaps Wednesday's practice, discusses the possibility of inclement weather for Saturday's game at Auburn and updates the health status of quarterback Barry Brunetti, defensive end C.J. Johnson and defensive tackle Bryon Bennett.

Offensive coordinator Dan Werner previews Auburn's defense, looks back on quarterback Bo Wallace's game against Alabama and discusses the role of running back I'Tavius Mathers in the offense. 

Wide receivers coach Grant Heard discusses Vince Sanders and his return from injury, Laquon Treadwell's progression and assesses the blocking of the wide receivers.

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