OXFORD – Ole Miss players and coaches insist there’s no taking their home-opening opponent lightly even when Southeast Missouri State doesn’t bring SEC street cred to the table.
Even so, it wouldn’t hurt the feelings of Rebels coach Hugh Freeze if tonight’s game plays out in such a way that some of his ailing players play less, some of his freshman more.
“We certainly want to look at a lot of kids,” Freeze said. “There were a lot of I-AA schools that knocked off Division I schools this past week. We’ve got to prepare.”
The Rebels (1-0) have moved some players around in the secondary in an effort to improve a pass defense torched by Vanderbilt quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels and wide receiver Jordan Matthews.
Samuels threw for 300 yards in his first SEC start, 178 of those to Matthews, who caught 10 balls and scored on a 55-yard run with a screen pass.
It would be a drastic change in approach if Southeast Missouri (0-1) tries to exploit the Ole Miss secondary.
In spite of falling behind early in their opener the option-based Redhawks – who were picked eighth in the nine-team Ohio Valley Conference by league coaches – attempted only 19 passes.
Southeastern Louisiana gained almost 500 yards in winning 45-7.
In response to Vanderbilt’s success, Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack moved nickleback Mike Hilton, a sophomore, to the boundary cornerback position.
He ran mostly with the first team in practice this week.
Hilton’s move means freshman Tony Conner becomes the second true freshman in the starting lineup. Conner, at Huskie, joins defensive end Robert Nkemdiche.
Conner had an interception on his first college play, halting Vanderbilt’s opening possession. He went on to finish with three tackles and a pass break-up as well.
Serderius Bryant will get the first crack at replacing outside linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, second-team All-SEC a year ago.
Nkemdiche had knee surgery earlier this week and could return by the Auburn trip on Oct. 5. Bryant will be backed up by Keith Lewis, who moves over from middle linebacker. Both are juniors.
The Rebels are also without starting left guard Aaron Morris (ACL), who will not return this season.
Senior Jared Duke, a career reserve, was running first team in Morris’ place earlier this week in practice.
Freeze has spoken about possibly moving senior left tackle Emmanuel McCray inside, thus opening the door for freshman Laremy Tunsil.
Tunsil and freshman guard Austin Golson played key roles in the second half at Vanderbilt and graded out well, Freeze said.
Right guard Justin Bell is confident the line can weather this storm.
“We do have depth. That’s something we didn’t have. We’re going to be good this season,” Bell said.