KENTUCKY @ OLE MISS: Rebels’ secondary still seeking that first pick

OXFORD – The Ole Miss secondary, just a first down away from giving up 400 passing yards last week, returns to SEC play with this game plan.
Just keep things simple.
There is no complex approach to improvement for a group of defensive backs the currently rank last in the SEC and 103rd in the nation in pass defense efficiency. Only three teams in America – Ole Miss among them – have not picked off a pass in 2010.
Fresno State had trouble running the ball last week, but the Bulldogs compensated through the air as senior quarterback Ryan Colburn completed 32 of 42 attempts for 390 yards and four touchdowns.
The Rebels face another senior QB today in Kentucky’s Mike Hartline.
Ole Miss goes into the game without senior strong safety Johnny Brown, the team’s leader in passes defended (four) or senior Jeremy McGee, a starter at one cornerback spot. Both were injured against Fresno State, Brown with a knee sprain and a hamstring pull, McGee with a concussion.
Ole Miss is expected to start redshirt freshman Charles Sawyer in place of McGee. Junior college transfer Damien Jackson will start at strong safety, freshman Brishen Matthews elevates to the three-safety rotation that also includes senior Fon Ingram.
Redshirt freshman Frank Crawford will enter when situations call for a fifth defensive back, and true freshman cornerback Tony Grimes is expected to see extensive playing time as well, just as he did last week when he had six tackles but did not break up a pass.
“Oh, that’s the beauty of having some youth. It eliminates a lot of things that you think you can do. It makes you simplify where they can go out and execute a few things,” defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said. “They’ll do those things well. As they mature and learn different schemes you add more and more to your package.”
Brown played some after the injury, but McGee went out after the game’s first series, so the youth movement has been in place for a week.
Sawyer has been a part of the big picture at cornerback all season. He is fourth on the team with 22 tackles and recovered a fumble last week, but he’s not broken up a pass.
Kentucky’s wide receivers are a big part of the Wildcats’ success on offense. Randall Cobb, a 5-foot-11, 186-pound junior, is the team’s leading receiver and is a candidate for the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player.
So focused on Cobb was Florida last week that Chris Matthews (6-5, 219) had six catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns in the Gators’ 48-14 win.
Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt earlier in the week called for his defensive backs to become more physical at the play’s critical stage and separate receivers from the football.
“We have to transition, transition out of the backpedal, after the receiver makes a break, just get there as fast we can,” Sawyer said.
It’s a bold new world for Sawyer, much different he says than high school when “you’re just out there, and you’re the best player on the field.”
Nix will work to get pass rush to Hartline to help his young secondary guys. There may have been a little bit less for them to digest this week, but there’s always man coverage.
“Sometimes you have to simplify to where they can go out and execute a few things,” Nix said. “They’ll do those things well, and as they mature and learn different schemes you can add more to your package.”

Saturday’s game at a glance
– Where: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Oxford
– Kickoff: 11:21 a.m.
– Television: SEC Network, WCBI.
– Radio: Ole Miss Network, XM 201; Sirius 218.
– Records: Ole Miss 2-2, 0-1 SEC; Kentucky 3-1, 0-1 SEC
– Series: Ole Miss leads 26-13-1
– Coaches: Kentucky – Joker Phillips 3-1, first season. Ole Miss – Houston Nutt 131-80 18th season; 20-10 third season at Ole Miss.
– Statistical Leaders: Kentucky – RB Derrick Locke, 84 carries, 475 yards, 5 TD; QB Mike Hartline, 75 for 114, 922 yards, 6 TD, 2 INT; WR Randall Cobb, 10 catches, 227 yards, 2 TD; DB Danny Trevathan 27, 6 TFL. Ole Miss – RB Brandon Bolden 59 carries, 410 yards, 4 TD; Jeremiah Masoli, 48 for 77, 733 yards, 3 TD, 5 INT; WR Markeith Summers 10 catches, 235 yards, 2 TD; LB Jonathan Cornell, 39 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 3 sacks.
– Trends: Kentucky hasn’t won in Oxford since 1978. … Houston Nutt is 2-3 against Kentucky . … Kentucky defeated Ole Miss 31-14 in 2006 in Lexington, the teams’ last meeting.
– Notes: Ole Miss defeated Kentucky 13-7 in 2005, the Wildcats’ last trip to Oxford, one of three SEC wins for former coach Ed Orgeron. … Ole Miss has scored 145 points in four games, its most during that span since 2003 … Ole Miss freshman DE Delvin Jones and freshman CB Tony Grimes are expected to figure in prominently on the defense because of injuries. … The Rebels are 16-15 against the SEC East since 2000. … Kentucky’s Cobb is a candidate for the Paul Hornung Award presented to the nation’s most versatile player. … UK’s Locke has surpassed the 100-yard mark in all four games this season.
– Summing it up: “The thing you see is speed. You don’t have to hold your block as long for Jeff Scott. It’s exciting to use him in different ways.” – Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt
– Prediction: Ole Miss 29, Kentucky 28

Read more in GameDay tab in today’s NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.

Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal