Ole Miss’ 31-16 loss to Auburn marked the first game for the Rebels without D.K. Metcalf lining up on the outside at receiver. The redshirt sophomore suffered a neck injury at Arkansas that required surgery and was shutdown for the season.
The team struggled in the red zone in the loss to the Tigers, sputtering when the field got small and unable to combat the pressure Auburn brought in passing situations. Metcalf’s absence was far from the sole reason for the red zone dysfunction, but Ole Miss certainly missed the presence of the 6-foot-4, 230 pound target who has proven to be a reliable red zone option.
Sophomore Braylon Sanders started in Metcalf’s place. He caught three passes for 18 yards in the loss.
Metcalf’s counterpart on the outside — senior Darmakus Lodge — caught five balls for 84 yards and will likely see his number of targets increase, particularly in the red zone.
“We just know we have to step up and make a few more plays than we’ve been making,” Lodge said. “We know what we have to do.”
Sanders had a four-catch, 133 yard game against Southern Illinois in place of an injured Lodge earlier this season. The performance not only gave Sanders confidence, but also his teammates.
“We knew he could do it,” Lodge said. “But seeing him actually go out there and have a career high was amazing to watch. It gave us confidence in him and I know he will finish strong in the SEC.”
The trickle down effect of Metcalf’s absence has largely been an increased snap count for tight ends Octavious Cooley and Dawson Knox. Sometimes, it has been the two of them on the field at the same time in what the team calls ’12 personnel’.
But it also means the services of Elijah Moore and Miles Battle will be needed more frequently.
“You can definitely tell they are more eager now that D.K. is down,” Lodge said. “They know their name might get called a lot more than it usually has. They are a little more eager to go out and make some plays.”
Both true freshmen, Moore has a great deal of speed and is a cookie cutter slot receiver. Battle is still growing into his lanky 6-foot-4, 188 pound frame and plays in a similar fashion to Metcalf, using his size to overwhelm defensive backs. The difference is that Metcalf is nearly 50 pounds heavier.
“Once he gets into the weight room and put on some weight, he will be a big red zone threat much like D.K.,” Lodge said. “He is a jump ball guy. He can run and beat you deep. He is physical out there on the perimeter blocking.”
Head coach Matt Luke knows there really isn’t a way to adequately replace Metcalf, but has been pleased with the way the unit has handled the loss.
“I think it’s been using Elijah more often and getting in 12 personnel with Cooley and Knox, getting them two out there at the same time,” Luke said. “Then having a combination of A.J. and Lodge, or A.J. outside with Elijah inside. There have been some combinations we are working on. Whichever one works the best, we will use.”
The red zone issues are fixable, but a remedy will be more difficult without Metcalf. Lodge thinks Ole Miss is close to figuring it all out.
“The plays are there,” Lodge said. “The scheme is there. We just have to step up as players and make the plays. We have to catch the balls, make the right reads and block the right people. We just have to get it all together. We are driving the ball down the field so I know we can move the ball. We just have to get down there and do the right things.”