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Extra Emphasis on Special Teams Play

Extra Emphasis on Special Teams Play

Through the years, special teams play has provided a winning edge in the Ole Miss-LSU rivalry, and and you don't have to go all the way back to Billy Cannon's 1959 Halloween run.

In a run that reminded fans of Cannon, Odell Beckham Jr. sparked a 41-35 comeback win for LSU with a game-tying 89-yard punt return for a touchdown in the teams' last meeting in Baton Rouge.

Andrew Ritter split the uprights on a 41-yard field goal with two seconds left on the clock to lift Ole Miss to a 27-24 win in last year's meeting in Oxford.

"When you watch all the highlights of the games of the past, there always seems to be a special teams play in there," special teams coordinator Tom Allen said. "We all know about the famous punt returns that have occurred down there. I was pretty emotional and passionate when I addressed our guys on Tuesday in our special teams meeting. I believe it's going to be the difference.

"Our 'it' that Coach Freeze challenges us with is to provide the winning edge, and that's what we need to do. We have done that in several games this year, and we need to do it again in this kind of environment."

The Rebels have a trio of freshmen in key spots on special teams, with Will Gleeson handling the punting duties, Gary Wunderlich handling placekicking and kickoff duties and Markell Pack returning punts. 

Gleeson ranks among the nation's leaders in punting (45.5 ypg) and net punting (44.0), while Wunderlich is 3-of-4 on field goals with a long of 46 against Alabama. Pack has had some shaky moments and continues to learn through game experience, but Allen remains confident in him.

"As I have said before, returning punts is the most difficult thing we ask anybody on our team to do," Allen said. "Being a young guy doing that is hard, but he's smooth catching the ball. He's the most natural one we have. Now, it's a matter of making good decisions under fire."


Defense Preps for Powerful Ground Game

The LSU offense is led by a three-headed powerful rushing attack that ranks sixth in the SEC (220.9 ypg). Freshman Leonard Fournette leads the way with 544 yards and seven touchdowns, followed by seniors Kenny Hilliard (353 yards, 6 TDs) and Terrence Magee (344 yards, 3 TDs).

Over their last two games, the Tigers have rushed for 195 yards on 50 carries in a 30-27 win at Florida and rushed for 303 yards on 51 carries in a 41-3 win over Kentucky, but they face their stiffest test of the season in Ole Miss, which boats the nation's sixth-best rush defense (97.1 ypg).

"The last two weeks they turned back into what they want to be, which is running the ball downhill," defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. "They have the big backs who are always falling forward, very good football players, with play-action off of it. The quarterbacks, especially (Anthony) Jennings, have gotten more comfortable in their offense."

Wommack said they faced a similar test earlier this season in Alabama. The Rebels held the Crimson Tide to 17 points and 396 yards of total offense (168 rushing, 228 passing), both well below their season averages of 39.6 points per game and 514.6 yards per game.

"Alabama, to me, is very similar," Wommack said. "Their lines are similar, and their backs are similar. Their receivers, in some ways, are similar. The one outstanding receiver at Alabama (Amari Cooper) is probably better than any one person at LSU, but as a group LSU's receivers are younger. The quarterbacks are very similar."

The more traditional, smash mouth offense, Allen said, plays to the strengths of their physical, downhill players, such as linebackers Serderius Bryant and Deterrian Shackelford.

"We're not a big linebacker corps, by any means, but we're tough kids," linebackers coach Tom Allen said. "That's what you've got to have against these guys. We're big enough and we tackle well enough that we feel comfortable against their scheme.

"I don't feel like we have a group of guys that can't adjust. We're probably better suited for this than we are some of the wide-open spread looks that we see."


Still Remains Questionable for LSU

Center Ben Still (sprained MCL) did not practice Wednesday remains questionable for Saturday's game against LSU.

"He is coming, just don't know exactly how he'll be Saturday," Freeze said. "The good thing is he knows everything. He doesn't have to get reps. If he can go, he certainly will."

If Still is unable to play, Robert Conyers will take over at center, having played almost all of the second half against Tennessee. He would be backed up Craig Frigo at center, with Daronte Bouldin and Davion Johnson also figuring in the tackle rotation.

"It lessens our depth at other places, but he had a really good game against Tennessee," said Freeze of Conyers. "He's very athletic. He's maybe not as strong or has as much mass as Ben for certain blocks, but he did really well and his snaps have been good."


Wearing the lighter blue helmets for the first time since 1994 to honor the late Chucky Mullins, the Ole Miss defense also honored his memory with perhaps the most dominant defensive performance of the Hugh Freeze Era.

"Chucky would have been proud of the helmets, the baby blues, and particularly how the defense played," Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. "I know Chucky would have loved that. We will continue to honor him because of his character traits, his selflessness and his attitude about life and the university."

Against a Memphis offense that averaged nearly 45 points and 500 yards per game, the Rebels held the Tigers to only a field goal and 104 total yards, the fewest by an opponent since Mississippi State in 2008, as they defeated the Tigers by a score of 24-3.

"I'm extremely proud of our defense," Freeze said. "I don't know if we have had a better effort than that in our two and a half years here. They were really phenomenal. That was a team that putting up some really good numbers."

"We were dominating up front," defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. "The linebackers played well and the secondary was in the right position most of the night. You don't get many of those, but we did a lot of good things."

The Ole Miss defense created some big plays, an interception by junior safety Trae Elston and a sack and a sack-strip by freshman defensive end Marquis Haynes that helped lead to the Rebels' second touchdown drive, making it a two-score game in their favor at 17-7. 

The Rebels also finished with a season-high 12 tackles for loss and four sacks, as they limited the Tigers to just 1.7 yards per play.

"We were flying around, doing our job, being in the right place and making the plays we're supposed to make," junior linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche said. "Playing as one defense. This is probably the most emotional we have played since we have been here. That's us now. That's who we are. We have seen what we can do. We have seen how our defense is coming together."


One of the biggest question marks entering the game was the rush defense, which Ole Miss answered emphatically, holding Memphis to negative-four rushing yards on 17 carries.

"We were fitting our gaps, flying to the ball," senior safety Cody Prewitt said. "We had a lot of energy and we were running to the ball and hitting as much as we could. That's what gave us so much success against the run."

Prewitt said the only thing he could remember they did wrong on defense was a 42-yard pass late in the first quarter. Despite that long gain to the Ole Miss 7-yard line, the defense responded with three straight tackles for loss and held Memphis to a field goal.

The defensive effort was especially important given that the Ole Miss offense was held to seven points through three quarters and also committed four turnovers.

"We're a team," Prewitt said. "There's going to be some games where the offense is going to win the game. There are going to be some games where the defense carries the load. That's how a team goes. It goes back and forth. I'm just really proud of the way the defense played. We never blinked."


NFL.com CFB 24/7 has counted down the 14 college football players to watch -- and some other college football topics -- in varying categories in 2014. Below are the highlights for Ole Miss and the link to the complete 14 for '14 series.

Most versatile players: Robert Nkemdiche (7)

Particulars: 6-4, 277, sophomore 

Buzz: Did anyone else in the country see time on both the defensive line and at running back last year? Show of hands? Nkemdiche can make the claim, although he just got five totes in the backfield, for 32 yards. Short-yardage rushing aside, it's at defensive tackle where Nkemdiche is expected to dominate for the Rebels as a sophomore this fall. He played some end last year, as well, but tackle appears to be his home after making eight tackles for loss among 34 stops last year. But we won't be surprised if he gets a few more third-and-1 carries this fall.

Fastest players: Kailo Moore (5)

Another two-sport star in college, Moore mostly contributed last season on special teams as a freshman. He's off to a good start in 2014 on the track and has times comparable with TCU's Kolby Listenbee and Georgia Tech's Broderick Snoddy in the 100- and 200-meter dashes.

Toughest players: Serderius Bryant (4)

Particulars: 5-9, 215, junior

Buzz: Rebels free safety Cody Prewitt receives more acclaim for his big hits -- he almost eviscerated Vanderbilt WR Jordan Matthews in last season's opener -- but Bryant deserves the honor. He's a 5-9 linebacker (and the 5-9 is his listed height, with emphasis on "listed") who starts in the SEC. Bryant's nickname is "Bird," which he picked up in high school in the Orlando area for the way he flew around the field making tackles and big hits. Yes, despite his size, a guy nicknamed "Bird" really lays the wood. You have to be tough to be a 5-9 linebacker in the SEC who makes big hits.

Most physical players: Cody Prewitt (5)

Particulars: 6-2, 212, senior 

Buzz: He led the SEC in interceptions last season with six, but don't let that fool you: Prewitt is a hitter first, and a coverage ace second. He's like an extra linebacker when it comes to run support, and patrols the middle of the field with a nasty streak on passing downs. Recall star Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews vomiting on national TV last year in the first game of the season after taking a brutal hit -- it was Prewitt on the giving end.

Players with best intangibles: Deterrian Shackelford (6)

Particulars: 6-1, 215, senior 

Buzz: There are few stories of perseverance in college football to match that of Shackelford, who missed two straight years of football while recovering from multiple surgeries on a devastating knee injury. He returned last year to make 44 tackles -- 7.5 for losses. While not the team's best defender, he's the Rebels' emotional leader and the only two-time winner of Ole Miss' Chucky Mullins Award for courage. Shackelford's injury plight got him a rare sixth year of eligibility granted by the NCAA, and he'll wear Mullins' No. 38 jersey this fall.

Smallest players: Jaylen Walton

Particulars: 5-8, 166, Junior

Buzz: Coach Hugh Freeze clearly likes his running backs small and quick, and that's exactly what Walton brings to the SEC in college football's most physical conference. He made seven starts in the Rebels' backfield last year, picking up 523 yards and six touchdowns. With 29 catches for 322 yards, he was also one of the SEC's most prolific receivers at the running back position. And if that wasn't enough for the two-year letterman from Memphis, he also returned 25 kickoffs for another 515 yards.

Heaviest players: Aaron Morris

Particulars: 6-5, 355, junior 

Buzz: What could have been a dominant year for Morris last season never even got started, as a torn ACL put him on the sideline in the Rebels' first game. He had been a full-time starter at guard in 2012, and even saw six starts as a freshman in 2011. Morris isn't just a big body -- he's a player -- and provides a physical presence to an offense known more for finesse than power. A healthy Morris in 2014 would be a major boost to the Ole Miss offensive front.

Top recruiters: Chris Kiffin

Remember when the Rebels seemed to come out of nowhere in 2013 and land a recruiting class ranked in the top 10 that included the best player in the country? Kiffin was the chief reason why Laremy Tunsil and Robert Nkemdiche are in Oxford, and he's been the man behind the recruiting efforts of the program that has turned heads recently. Recruiting and the last name Kiffin always seem to go together and it will be interesting to see how Chris will fare going against brother Lane head-to-head.

Biggest hitters: Cody Prewitt (3)

Particulars: 6-2, 212, senior.

Buzz: He is from Bay Springs, Miss. If you're like us, you hear "Bay Springs" and you picture a calm, peaceful place. Well, that's not the way Prewitt plays football; instead, he flies around, making big plays and huge hits. His nicely executed form tackle on Vanderbilt WR Jordan Matthews in last season's opener is a perfect example. (Warning: Do not run a Google search on that hit unless you are comfortable with watching a guy throw up on the field.) But Prewitt, who should vie for All-America honors this fall, is more than a big hitter; he had six interceptions and seven pass breakups to go along with 71 tackles last season. Still, while he is good in coverage, his best trait is his hitting ability.


Graduate student linebacker Deterrian Shackelford will wear Chucky Mullins' No. 38 jersey for the second time in his Ole Miss career, but for the first time in Saturday's Grove Bowl, he wore it during a game. 

The first non-senior to win the award in 2011, Shackelford also became the first-two recipient of the Chucky Mullins Courage Award.

"It's a blessing," Shackelford said. "It's the first time something like that has happened at this university, so I'm honored and blessed that the coaching staff and the people who had a part in this selection process picked me to represent Chucky Mullins with that honor.

"My junior year, I didn't think I had a possibility of winning either, so both of them caught me off guard. I'm overwhelmed. I never imagine going to a university and having this much of an impact, especially having as much of an impact as I have had not being on the field. Growing up, you always think your impact is going to be making sacks and touchdowns, but to see that in a different view, I have certainly been blessed to be in that situation."

Shackelford was awarded a sixth year of eligibility after he missed the entire 2011 and 2012 season due to knee injuries. Despite his absence on the field, he remained a team leader on and off the field. He played both linebacker and defensive end last year and found a home at middle linebacker this spring.

Raised expectations were a common theme throughout the spring coming off an 8-5 season and a Music City Bowl victory, which he and his teammates have embraced entering the summer leading up to the season opener against Boise State on Aug. 28 in Atlanta.

"I don't feel like it was an unrealistic expectation," Shackelford said. "It was all realistic. The things that we can do this year are no dream. There's no, 'Maybe, we can do it; maybe we can't.' 

"We know we have the pieces to the puzzle and we can do it. The time is now. We feel a sense of urgency. We put ourselves in a great position. We have a lot of veterans coming back. We can do a lot of big things, but we have to stay humble and we have to keep working. In spite of all the hype and all of that, we have to stay humble and continue to work. We can go far."

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