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Another Look At No. 8 Missouri

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

Ole Miss is the only school in the upper half of the SEC statistical rankings in every major offensive and defensive category. This week, the Rebels face one of their toughest tests on both sides of the ball in No. 8 Missouri. 

The Tigers defense ranks second in the SEC and 14th nationally in rushing defense (111.9 ypg). Missouri has held opponents under 150 rushing yards in all but one game (Georgia), while the Ole Miss has been held under 150-yard mark four times this year, including each of their three losses.

"They're one of the best rushing defenses in the nation," head coach Hugh Freeze said. "It presents a challenge for us. We're not near as good offensively when we can't run the ball. It puts us a bit in a disadvantage in having to protect against a D-line like this, especially. There's a premium on being able to run it."

"The strength of their team is up front," offensive line coach Matt Luke said. "We know that, and that's probably going to be where the game is won and lost."


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

On the defensive line, senior defensive end Michael Sam leads the league and ranks sixth nationally with 10 sacks and also leads the league and ranks fifth nationally with 16 tackles for loss. On the other side, junior defensive end Kony Ealy, ranks fourth in the SEC with 6.5 sacks and leads the team with 13 quarterback hurries.

"They provide probably the biggest challenge we have had all year from top to bottom," Luke said. "They're good in every spot. It's not like they have one guy you can focus on. (Sam) has the most sacks, but the other ends provide their own challenges. One of them is faster; one of them is bigger, and they're two inside guys are good, so you can't slide your line a certain way and protect against one guy."

It's not only the personnel, but also their scheme and movement, which presents a great challenge for the Ole Miss offensive line, both in run blocking and pass protection.

"They do a good job of movement," Luke said. "They're never in the same place. They move about every snap. They're a moving front and don't let you double-team because they're constantly moving, twisting and mixing up the front and making it tough on you. 

"Nothing is ever easy, and you always have to figure something out. You can't just do your assignment; it's always movement, so that's a unique challenge for us."

Jones, Wommack Prepare For Missouri Tall, Speedy Receivers


Cornerbacks coach Jason Jones meets with members of the media following Wednesday's practice.

On Monday, junior cornerback Senquez Golson compared the Missouri group of receivers to playing against three or four Mike Evans from Texas A&M. 

In the Oct. 12 meeting against Texas A&M, the Ole Miss defense, notably Golson, held Evans to a season-low 46 yards on four catches and without a touchdown, but Missouri presents a different challenge this week with all four of its starting receivers listed at 6-foot-2 or taller.

Sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham and senior L'Damian Washington (6-foot-2), who each have 500-plus receiving yards and nine touchdowns, are listed at 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-2, respectively. For the Rebels, Golson and sophomore cornerback Mike Hilton are listed at 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-8, respectively.

"Most of the time you have one guy who is 6-5 guy, but to have several like they have is unusual," cornerbacks coach Jason Jones said. "All three, they can run and catch the football. It's going to be a good challenge for us."

"We can't make them any taller," defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. "There's nothing we can do about that. We have to go with what we got and work the fundamentals to try to challenge those guys."


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

Another cornerback in the mix for Ole Miss will be freshman Derrick Jones, who made his college debut at No. 1 Alabama and has started three games since then. At 6-foot-3, he can help the Rebel defense match up against Missouri's tall receivers.

"After recruiting, I hoped he was going to be a safety, but I'm glad to have him as a corner," Wommack said. "I didn't realize he had the kind of hips and speed that he has. A lot of times long guys like him struggle with change of direction, but he's got all those things. He will make a bunch of money someday."

Tough Test In No. 8 Missouri

There's a different air surrounding this week's primetime showdown with No. 8 Missouri, the Rebels' first top-10 test since a 27-24 win over then-No. 6 LSU back on Oct. 19.

"It's a huge week for us," junior quarterback Bo Wallace said. "We get to see how good we are. We had some games that we felt like we didn't play as well in that we could have been in, but this is our redemption game that we can go back and see how good we are."

"In the weight room yesterday, it was crazy," junior linebacker Serderius Bryant said. "No one was talking or doing anything. We're telling each other this a game that no one should have to get you amped for. You should be motivated and feel that urge to do what you can do.

The Rebels (7-3, 3-3 SEC) have won four straight, having eclipsed 500 total offense yards in each of the four games, including a school-record 751 against Troy this past Saturday. They also re-entered the BCS and Associated Press polls at No. 24.

The Tigers (9-1, 5-1 SEC) rank in the top three in the SEC and top 20 in the nation in both scoring offense (41.3 points per game) and scoring defense (20.2). Other than their loss to South Carolina, none of their wins have been decided by less than 15 points.

"I don't know that having to win the game will answer the question, 'Are you really a top-25 team?'" Freeze said. "But if we go out, compete and have a chance to win it, that's what we're asking for right now out of our kids in Year Two. 

"Let's go find out where we stand and how we match up with the elite in the nation right. Hopefully, we'll be in it at the end and see. With the schedule we have played, looking back on it, we have had our share of tests, and this will be another one Saturday night."

When asked about keys to the matchup, Freeze mentioned two specifically: running the ball effectively and eliminating explosive plays in the passing game.

"We're pretty good when we can run it and mix in the play-action pass and the stuff we like to do off our run game," Freeze said. "When we're not running it -- you look at the Alabama and Auburn games -- we're not the same team. 

"(Cornerbacks coach) Jason Jones put together a reel of their explosive receivers play, and it's quite impressive, so we have a tall task there. If we can eliminate those and are able run the ball the ball effectively, that will go a long way in helping us be in this game.

The Challenge On Defense

Senior James Franklin is listed as the starter at quarterback for the Tigers this week, having missed the last four games since suffering a shoulder injury against Georgia on Oct. 12. 

Franklin averages 225.3 passing yards per game and has thrown for 14 touchdowns with just three interceptions. His backup, redshirt freshman Maty Mauk, averages 95.1 passing yards per game and 10 touchdowns with just two interceptions.

"There's not much difference in the two quarterbacks, so that's the good thing," Freeze said. "They are going to be who they are. They have done the exact same things with their second guy that they do with their first guy, so it's not like you're preparing for two different schemes. They have confidence in both of them and have good reason to."

The Tigers also have a talented group of receivers, led by sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham and senior L'Damian Washington who each have 500-plus receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Each of their four starting receivers are listed at 6-foot-2 or taller, with Green-Beckham at 6-foot-6 and Washington at 6-foot-4. 

Ole Miss junior cornerback Senquez Golson compared it to playing against three or four Mike Evans from Texas A&M. Both he and sophomore cornerback Mike Hilton said it's about playing physical with the tall, speedy receivers from Missouri.

"That's a physics problem that we can't solve," said Freeze of their height. "It's a concern for sure because there are times where their guys are more able to make a play on the ball than some defensive backs they have faced. That is a great concern and something that we have to try to figure out what the best answers are when those cases arise."

The Challenge On Offense

One of the keys to the game, Freeze said, is Missouri's ability to stop the run. The Tigers rank second in the league and 14th nationally in rushing defense (111.9 ypg). In earlier losses to Alabama and Auburn, Ole Miss rushed for 46 and 124 yards, respectively. 

In recent games, the Rebels have run the ball better, including a season-high 382 yards against Troy, and Freeze credited the offensive line progressing and being more multiple, while senior offensive linemen Pierce Burton and Emmanuel McCray credited continuity and working better with double teams.

"Very few people have been able to line up and just run the ball effectively on them to keep you off balance, and then they get you one-dimension and those ends are quick and cause trouble in the backfield for you," Freeze said. "We have to try to find a way to run the ball effective enough so that we can be who we are and want to be and keep them thinking we're balanced, which we have been as of late."

Missouri also does a great job of generating pressure and forcing turnovers, and it starts with their defensive line. 

The Tigers lead the league in sacks and rank third nationally with 34 sacks, as well as lead the league and rank seventh nationally with 17 interceptions. It's a great challenge for junior quarterback Bo Wallace, who after throwing 17 interceptions last year, has only been picked off five times through 10 games this season.

"Sometimes the pressure is causing some of it, but they do a great job also of mixing up their coverages and causing you to want to be greedy," Freeze said. "If you're not patient against them, because they're going to make you go 8, 10, 12-play drives to get points and they're very good in the red zone. In most of their games, they're ahead and forcing you to throw a lot, and they're stopping the run, so the sacks are coming because when they get you in a position where they know you have to throw, their guys are very good at that."

"I have to be sharp every week, no matter who we play," Wallace said. "We play in probably the best conference in America. Every week, we're going to play against guys who can go get the ball and great defensive backs. There are great defenses in this league, so it's the same every week."

Their defensive line is led by a talented duo at the ends. Senior Michael Sam leads the league and ranks sixth nationally with 10 sacks and also leads the league and ranks fifth nationally with 16 tackles for loss. On the other side, junior Kony Ealy, ranks fourth in the SEC with 6.5 sacks and leads the team with 13 quarterback hurries.

"They do a lot of movement, so it will be a unique challenge for us," Burton said. "It's not just like I'm watching a defensive end every time. The defensive end is going to be slanting. They're doing run-game twists on first down. We haven't seen that all year except for SEMO. That's a really unique thing to see."

"They are very talented," McCray said. "They are slated as one of the best in the SEC. They play pretty hard and all have pretty good motors. It's not just about outstanding ability, they all play as a good unit."

Containing Johnny Manziel


The first two questions of head coach Hugh Freeze's weekly press conference centered on Texas A&M quarterback and last year's Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.


In last year's game, Manziel accounted for 320 yards of total offense, 191 through the air and 129 on the ground, and two total touchdowns, one each through the air and on the ground, as Texas A&M erased a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 30-27 in Oxford.


Through five games this year, Manziel leads the SEC and ranks sixth nationally in total offense, averaging 360.6 yards/game. He also averages 9.59 yards/play, which ranks second in the league and ninth nationally, and 36.1 percent of his offensive plays have resulted in a gain of 10 or more yards.


"You have to be multiple," Freeze said of defending Manziel. "You can't just give him one thing. There are no bad coaches in this league, and they have tremendous players, so they will make adjustments, if they get a beat on what exactly you're doing. We did have a good plan and we contained him for the better part of three quarters, but the fourth quarter, he showed why he won the Heisman Trophy.


"We will look at last year very closely and use what we think was very good and try to mix in some new stuff. We were able to create some turnovers last year, which I think was big, so hopefully we can have a repeat of that performance and contain him a bit. You're not to going to stop him but hopefully contain him and give us a chance to be in it late in the game."


A large part of the defensive game plan last year involved sophomore Mike Hilton, who made his first career start against Texas A&M last year. From his dimeback position, he spent most of the game spying Manziel and had three solo tackles, including two sacks and a forced fumble.


"We're going to have someone spy Manziel this game," junior linebacker Serderius Bryant said. "Mike Hilton did a great job with that last year. Hopefully, we're going to put him back on him this year. Our corners and defensive backs are going to have to step up this week because they're going to throw the ball to Mike Evans a lot. He's a great, very tall receiver, so we're going to have to make some plays on Mike Evans."


"The coaches are going to think of a different type of scheme this year," Hilton said. "We have a whole year under our belt watching him, so we're going to have more defensive packages set for him."



One of those packages might include a 3-3-5 defensive look the Ole Miss defense showed some against Auburn, with Bryant and sophomore linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche on the field at the same time, along with senior linebacker Mike Marry. 


Bryant has started the last four games at Stinger linebacker and leads the SEC and ranks ninth nationally with 10.8 tackles/game, while Nkemdiche returned from injury against Alabama and led the Rebels with nine tackles and recovered a fumble last week against Auburn.


"That package went pretty well," Bryant said. "The coaches told us they were going to put something else in this week that we're going to run. They want to try to get me and Denzel on the field at the same time. We're both playmakers, and we're both fast and have speed. They want to try to get to playmakers on the field at the same time.


"When me and Denzel are on the field together, Denzel takes on blocks better than me, so he plays down close to the line, and I'm free to roam back at Stinger linebacker about six yards off the line and read the ball, and wherever it goes, I go to the ball."


Along with scheme, players said it's as much, if not more, about winning 1-on-1 battles and just making plays when defending Manziel and the Texas A&M offense.


"Don't overdo anything," Hilton said. "Play your game. If you get a chance to get him on the ground, make sure you get him on the ground because he can make plays. Everybody knows it. You got to make a play when it happens."


"It's physically, you got to make a play," sophomore safety Trae Elston said. "If you play athlete on athlete, the best athlete is going to make the tackle, so that's what he have to do against him."



Both Freeze and Hilton noted that Manziel has played a lot more in the pocket this year compared to last year. And his passing numbers are up, from yards per game, to completion percentage, to pass efficiency.


Through five games this year, Manziel ranks second in the SEC and 14th nationally in passing offense (297.8). He also leads the SEC and ranks eight nationally in completion percentage (71.4) and ranks second in the SEC and fifth nationally in passer rating (188.06).


"You notice that he doesn't mind standing in the pocket longer," Freeze said. "I thought he was a good thrower last year, too. We were hoping he wasn't, but when you faced him live, you realized he was. He certainly does not mind standing in the pocket longer this year. They have worked on that to minimize some of the hits that he takes and him developing as more of a complete quarterback. You can tell work has been put in on him doing that."


"You have to let it come to you," Hilton said. "You have to be conservative. Everybody knows how he plays. He has actually played a lot more in the pocket this year. He still has the ability to escape and make plays happen. We have to sit back and let him come to us and make a play when it happens."


Manziel's favorite target in last year's game and again so far this season is 6-foot-5, 225-pound sophomore Mike Evans. The two connected for a 32-yard gain on 3rd-and-19 from the Texas A&M 3-yard line, as the Aggies rallied to win last year in Oxford.


A Freshman All-SEC selection last year, Evans leads the SEC and ranks third nationally in receiving yards (138.2 ypg). He also leads the SEC and ranks second nationally in yards per reception (24.7). He has also accounted for 10 plays of 30 or more yards, which leads the nation, including four plays of 40 or more yards.


"Everybody wanted us to copy Alabama's plan against A&M, and I wanted to show them on tape where 270 yards came from," Freeze said of Evans. "It was a guy going up and just making a play, which he's very good at. We saw that on 3rd-and-19 last year at our place. Senquez had perfect coverage on him, and he just went up over him. 


"We have got to think through that. We have thought about a lot of crazy things, trying to think out of the box a little bit on who we might put on him in some situations that can compete for a jump ball with him, so we're thinking along those lines. Certainly, even if you have him covered, there's no guarantee that he's not going to make the play." 


Who might the Rebels put on Evans? The Rebels' two starting cornerbacks, Hilton and junior Senquez Golson, are listed at 5-foot-8 and 5-foot-9, respectively. 


Senior Charles Sawyer, who also plays a lot at cornerback, is listed at 5-foot-11. Freshman Derrick Jones, at 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, who switched from wide receiver to cornerback earlier this season, might also figure is some situations.


"You have to be physical with him right before he gets up in the air because he uses his body a lot, so you have to get your body into him before he does," Hilton said. "And if you know you can't get a pick, separate his hands, so he won't catch it."


D. Nkemdiche Nears Return From Injury

Head coach Hugh Freeze meets with the media after Wednesday's practice.


Doctors told sophomore linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche that a return for Saturday's game at No. 1 Alabama was possible. From there, it was rehabbing two or three times a day and doing everything possible to be back after suffering a torn meniscus during the season opener against Vanderbilt.


As early as Monday, when Nkemdiche did drills with linebackers coach Tom Allen, he realized it was possible. When he came into the training room on Tuesday morning, it wasn't swelling, then after practice on Tuesday, he came back this morning, and there was no swelling. 


After practice on Wednesday, both he and head coach Hugh Freeze were confident that he will make the trip to Tuscaloosa.


"I felt good," Nkemdiche said. "I felt better than I did yesterday, and it looked great this morning. it's exciting because I feel like tomorrow morning, it's going to feel better than it did today."


"He looked good" Freeze said. "He didn't have much swelling today. If that is the case tomorrow morning, we will put him on the travel squad."

Nkemdiche, an All-SEC performer last season, led the team with 82 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and three interceptions, and it's not just that production, but the overall depth at the linebacker position, where the Rebels have missed him this season.


"We have missed him a lot," defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. "In some spots, we don't have much depth. When that happened, we had to move a guy that was playing Mike linebacker over to Stinger linebacker. D.T. (Shackelford) had to catch up on all the things that we got a thousand reps on."


In Nkemdiche's absence, Bryant has started the last two games at Stinger linebacker and leads the team with 26 tackles and four tackles for loss.


"We knew all along that through fall camp that was one of our strongest two-deep positions with those two guys there," Wommack said. "We actually created some defensive packages so they would both be on the field at the same time because Serderius has come so far. Having them both back would be huge for us."


Last season, led by Nkemdiche, Ole Miss ranked second in the SEC, tied for 11th in the nation, with 38 sacks. Through three games, the Rebels have just four sacks, which is a by-product of defensive scheme. 


Wommack said they have played a lot more zone coverage and haven't pressured as much as in the past. As a result, they haven't given up as many big plays, an area of emphasis this season. 


Through three games, Ole Miss has allowed 32 plays of 10+ yards, which is the second fewest in the SEC and tied for 14th fewest in the nation, and just 9 plays of 20+ yards, which is tied for the second fewest in the SEC, tied for 20th fewest in the nation.


Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack meets with the media after Tuesday's practice.


Sawyer Adds Depth At Corner


After missing games against Southeast Missouri and Texas, senior cornerback Charles Sawyer is back and will play Saturday. He adds depth and will split time at boundary corner with sophomore Mike Hilton. He also gives them more versatility and will help in nickel and dime situations.


"Charles is doing good," cornerbacks coach Jason Jones said. "He's back and flying around, making plays in practice. We're looking forward to having him back. He gives us that much depth there at the cornerback position.

"In the Texas game, Mike (Hilton) and Senquez (Golson) played pretty much every snap. At times, they got winded, but with Charles being back, you can put him in the game, and you can rest either Senquez and Mike and try to keep fresh guys on the field."

Cornerbacks coach Jason Jones meets with the media after Wednesday's practice.


Hooks, Jones Progress At New Positions 


Freeze and his staff introduced two position changes last week, with junior Lavon Hooks now splitting reps between his original position, defensive tackle, and his new position, tight end, and moving from freshman Derrick Jones from wide receiver to cornerback.


Hooks is listed as a third-team defensive tackle behind juniors Carlton Martin and Bryon Bennett and has also gotten reps at tight end, where the 6-foot-4, 302-pounder played some in high school.


"He is learning," Freeze said. "He is swimming a bit at TE, so we kind of scaled back for this week, but we do have one package for him. He understands that and gives us a different look. 

"This year, he will work on both offense and defense unless something changes. In spring, we'll make a call one way or the other."

Jones is listed as a co-backup at boundary corner with senior Dehendret Collins behind sophomore Mike Hilton, with senior Charles Sawyer also in the mix at both field and boundary corner. Freeze said Jones has been looking really good, and defensive backs coach Jason Jones likes his size at 6-foot-3, 185 pounds.


"The size and speed that he has, that's what you want at corner," cornerbacks coach Jason Jones said. "We made the move a couple of weeks ago. The bye week, we had a chance to throw him in there and give him a ton of reps. He's coming along and doing a great job. I'm looking forward to seeing him out there and see what he can do."

Offensive coordinator Dan Werner meets with the media after Wednesday's practice.


Alabama's Blitzes


In Monday's press conference, Freeze said Alabama head coach has been on the cutting edge of defense, from new wrinkles every game, to multiple defenses, to the exotic blitzes that he likes to draw up on certain downs.


Offensive coordinator Dan Werner talked more about those blitzes and how tempo on offense can help counter them. 

"You can tell that they're communicating every play," Werner said. "As soon as a guy motions, they're going to change their coverage because they want to be in a certain look for every single formation and every single personnel group, so there's a lot of stuff going on with what they do. 

"The thing that we want to do is obviously play fast because it makes them think about those checks a lot faster."


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