OXFORD – Since football practice began for Ole Miss a month ago, the constant drumbeat from the head coach has been about building depth in the secondary.
The drumbeat became louder when two signees expected to make an impact at strong safety failed to make the roster, one by way of natural causes and one by way of felony indictment.
The season is here, and the sixth-ranked Rebels are having to line up without Tig Barksdale, the former South Panola star who left the team just days into camp with an undisclosed medical condition, and without Jamar Hornsby, who once was a promising talent at the University of Florida. Hornsby was indicted on an assault charge in August.
In a season-opening 45-14 win at Memphis, safety Johnny Brown and free safety Kendrick Lewis, the starters, led the Rebels in tackles, Brown with 15 and Lewis with nine. Brown also had an interception.
Behind them depth was thin but effective, and backup free safety Fon Ingram had the play of the game.
“We were hoping for an influx of an older guy with some experience, but hey, we didn’t have it. We’ve just had to get the guys who were here ready to go,” safeties coach Kim Dameron said.
Ingram doesn’t think that’s a bad plan anyway. A junior from Atlanta, he had six tackles against Memphis, and the interception he returned 38 yards for a touchdown in the final seconds of the first half was considered the game-turning play.
“To get that momentum on our side when we were struggling … it was huge,” Nutt said.
The play gave Ole Miss a 17-7 halftime lead.
Though he’s never started a game, it wasn’t the first time Ingram has made a lasting impression.
He appeared in 12 games last year, finishing with 16 tackles, a sack, a pass break-up and an interception.
Lewis, who had 95 tackles and four interceptions last year as the starting free safety, has All-SEC potential, coaches believe. There wasn’t a position battle for Ingram.
His role was clear early, and he took offense at the drumbeat of depth. It was personal.
“Yeah, that was challenging,” he said.
So Ingram responded to the challenge.
“The backups, we all study the playbook, break down film. I go in and ask questions to Kendrick, J.B. or coach Dameron if I’m not sure about something.”
“If guys are competitors, I don’t care if they’re true freshmen, if they’re competitors they take it personal,” Dameron said. “If the head coach says we’re thin at a spot, then he’s not counting on you, and I would take that personal. We’ve got some good young guys, and they’re competitors, but right now, Johnny, Kendrick and Fon have to be the bellcows.”
Ingram said the pass he snatched from Memphis quarterback Arkelon Hall was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Some would call that instinct.
“I covered the slot, and the slot ran a drag route. Our D line put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, and our linebackers took their proper players. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and I took it home for six for the team.”
Coaches are hoping for similar progress from Derrick Herman, a redshirt freshman who moved from cornerback to strong safety in the spring. Herman is listed as the No. 2 strong safety but did not get in the game.
Ingram played some strong safety, spelling Brown.
“In strong you’re covering the tight end more, there are more blitz packages. You’re pretty much a run stopper. In free you’re a pass stopper,” Ingram said.
Most safeties have an understanding of both positions. Sunday was the first time Ingram’s played strong safety in a game, he said. It’s a trend likely to continue until Herman is farther along in his development.
“Johnny was the swing guy last year. Now Fon’s the swing guy,” Dameron said. “Fon has had to step up for us. He played 25 plays at Memphis, and he played pretty good.”
Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal