Robert Nkemdiche, the consensus No. 1 high school recruit in the nation last year, is slated to start at defensive end, opposite junior C.J. Johnson, in his first college game.
His position coach, Chris Kiffin, and the other coaches are confident in Nkemdiche, and if anything, they will have to guard against his emotions and overexcitement.
"What we have been battling all fall camp is the notion that he feels that he has to make every play," Kiffin said. "We're trying to get him to play within the defense. Especially going out in the first game, I can't fathom the amount of pressure on him outside of all the other stuff. If he can just understand to go out and play the game like he has the last four weeks, then he will be fine.
"He's done a great job for a young guy coming in and having to learn the defense," defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. "There have been some issues with him jumping offsides, but you would rather have that then have a good who's sitting back. He's eager to play, very excited. Robert is as advertised."
Nkemdiche came a long way during fall practice, Kiffin said, from when he ran the first-team defense as early as Aug. 5, to entering his first college game.
"I was impressed with him picking up the defense like he did," Kiffin said. "He still has mistakes, obviously, but throwing him in right away, I think it was perfect for him. There was no, so to say, learning curve. The first two weeks, he was thrown in there, and we coached on the run.
"He would stay after meetings, just him and I, to go over that film, and then slow down and coach. Let him go full speed on the field, make a quick correction here and there, then in the film room, explain why he was doing something wrong and how it needs to be done."
Kiffin said Nkemdiche's technique "has varied," and "it's been up and down," but having gone back to watch film of South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney's freshman season, he said he saw a lot of the same things -- natural athleticism and making plays -- from Nkemdiche.
"I have seen both of them doing the wrong thing a number of times and making plays," Kiffin said. "So I'm not trying not to overcoach him. I want him to make plays and not play tentative. That stuff will come with experience."
A big challenge on Thursday will be getting Nkemdiche acclimated and handling the pressure of starting in his first college game.
"I talked to some of the older guys about it too, Cameron Whigham and C.J. Johnson," Kiffin said. "I got him rooming with C.J. Johnson on purpose the night before," Kiffin said. "I think that will be good for him, and out there as the game goes on, between plays and on the sidelines between series, those guys talking to him.
"It can't just be me every time. Those guys actually did it themselves. C.J. sees everything out there, so he's going to know if something is going on with Robert and let him know about it."
Freshmen In The Passing Game
Junior wide receiver Vince Sanders (collarbone) and senior Korvic Neat (knee) both suffered injuries during fall practice. With their injuries, freshman wide receivers Laquon Treadwell and Quincy Adeboyejo have taken on bigger roles in the Ole Miss offense.
Treadwell is slated to start at slot receiver, while Adeboyejo is a backup at one of the two outside receiver spots but will likely figure in the rotation on Thursday.
"Coming into the year, receiver was probably our deepest position," Wallace said. "And right now, we have two guys out, so recruiting those two guys definitely helped.
"Laquon is a big body. He helps you as a quarterback because defenders can't get around him to make a play on the ball. Quincy is a good route-runner. He's a little banged up right now, but he still looks good running around out there."
Another freshman, Evan Engram, is listed as a starter and expected a big role at tight end after losing seniors Ferbia Allen and Jamal Mosley from last year.
"He's going to really, really good," Wallace said. "He's one of the guys who's going to be a really good players. He's going to play a big role. He's a great receiving tight end. He's a mismatch for us, so he's going to play a big role for us."
Update On Mathers, Freshman Running Backs
Sophomore running back I'Tavius Mathers, who was listed as co-backup with fellow sophomore Jaylen Walton behind senior Jeff Scott, is about 80 percent, head coach Hugh Freeze said on the weekly teleconference on Wednesday.
"We think he's going to have a special year. He's put on some more weight. He's a physical runner for us, and he has some twitch to him, too. We think he's going to be a special back. He was hampered for quite a bit of camp with an ankle.
"I would say he's about 80 percent right now, so I don't know that tomorrow night you will see the true I'Tavius Mathers that you are going to see the rest of the year, but we're confident that once he gets back to 100 percent, he's going to be an important factor to our offense."
Also, on the weekly teleconference on Wednesday, Freeze was asked specifically about redshirting freshman running back Jordan Wilkins, one of three freshman running back in the mix for playing time, along with Mark Dodson and Kailo Moore.
"I would never decide to redshirt anyone this early, just because you never know," Freeze said. "I don't make up my mind this early to do that. I would like to redshirt him (Jordan Wilkins). He's going to be a good player, too. We just happen to have good depth at that position.
"We have got six guys that I believe are good players and would love to get to try to make it through the season with four of them and redshirt two. But again, it's too early to tell that."