Ole Miss has an opportunity this week to catch a reeling Auburn team at the right time and earn its second SEC win. It’s been a tumultuous couple of weeks for the Tigers, who lost to Tennessee at home last week and to Mississippi State on the road the week before.
The Tigers’ offense is struggling to move the football and has not run the ball with much consistent success, which is a staple in making Gus Malzahn’s system operate fluidly.
The Rebels returned to the practice field on Tuesday. Here are some news and notes from Tuesday’s practice:
— C.J. Miller did not practice. The sophomore safety sprained his ankle in the win over Louisiana-Monroe and did not play against Arkansas.
— Willie Hibbler and Mohamed Sanogo manned the first team linebacker slots, something that is becoming a theme in recent weeks as Hibbler has surged back up the depth chart and become a more consistent player. Kevontae Ruggs mixed in with the first and second team as well. He did not play in the win over Arkansas.
— Brenden Williams saw time with the second team at defensive end. With Markel Winters being out for four weeks with a sprained knee, Williams could see more extensive game action. Charles Wiley will be the most likely candidate to slide into Winters’ slot opposite of Qaadir Sheppard, but expect to see Ryder Anderson and Tariqiuous Tisdale there too as well.
— The first team secondary saw Javien Hamilton and Keidron Smith at corner with Armani Linton and Myles Hartsfield at the two safety slots and Vernon Dasher at star. The Rebels are seemingly piecing the secondary together on a weekly basis given a rash of injuries. Tylan Knight saw time with the second team at star was well behind Dasher. Armani Linton worked multiple positions as well. Hartsfield played all across the secondary in the win over Arkansas and will likely continue move across the defensive backfield for the remainder of this season. His versatility will help mask some of the Rebels’ depth issues.
Hibbler becoming a mainstay at first team linebacker:
Willie Hibbler made the biggest defensive play of the game for Ole Miss in the win over Arkansas. He broke up a third down pass from Razorback quarterback Cole Kelley over the middle to force a punt and set up the eventual game-winning drive.
Defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff called it the best play Hibbler has made since the two have worked together. Hibbler has consistently run with the first team alongside Mohamed Sanogo in recent weeks and thinks he is starting to figure things out in his junior season.
“I just never took a step until I pushed myself,” Hibbler said. “My teammates have been pushing me and it is paying off for me.”
Linebacker has been a revolving door of sorts for a struggling defense. The unit has played two true freshmen in Ruggs and Jacquez Jones, and Sanogo has been the veteran presence of the group as a true sophomore. Having Hibbler and Sanogo play together gives Ole Miss a little more experience where it badly needs it.
Hibbler was converted from tight end to linebacker early in his career at Ole Miss and it has taken a bit for him to adjust.
“I wasn’t as comfortable playing linebacker after playing offense all of my life,” Hibbler said. “It was something new. I wasn’t used to striking someone every play, hitting every play.”
Hibbler ran with the first team consistently in camp, before sliding down the depth chart as the season approached. His demotion was a bit of a reality check as well as a turning point and he has risen back up the depth chart.
“I knew I had to get into better shape,” Hibbler said. “I wasn’t running to the ball as much as I could. The coaches pushed me and knew I had more in me. It was just in me to find that out myself.”
Brown, Peeler react to the loss of Metcalf:
The raw emotion in A.J. Brown’s face showed when asked about losing his close friend and teammate Metcalf for the season.
Here’s A.J. Brown on losing D.K. Metcalf for the season.
— Brian Scott Rippee (@bsrippee) October 16, 2018
“I don’t want to get all emotional,” Brown said. “He’s a tremendous player. He doesn’t deserve that, especially given all he has been through, how hard he worked and how hard we worked this offseason.”
Wide receivers coach Jacob Peeler echoed Phil Longo’s sentiment that there really is no replacing a player of Metcalf’s caliber.
“He is in great spirits and was out there today,” Peeler said. “He is going to be a second coach and my second set of eyes out there on the field. It is unfortunate because I know how hard he has worked. I think that is the toughest part is knowing how much he puts into it.”
But Braylon Sanders is a more than capable replacement and has performed well this year. He will man the outside in Metcalf’s absence opposite of Damarkus Lodge, with Brown predominantly remaining in the slot.
“Braylon has had a tremendous season,” Peeler said. “I trust him 100 percent. He has learned from those guys. He is a starter in our mind. He has gone with the starters since fall camp.”
Sanders was productive against Texas Tech in the season opener and had over 133 yards receiving with a touchdown in the second game against Southern Illinois, replacing Damarkus Lodge who missed the game due to injury. Sanders has 12 catches for 247 yards on the year.
“Braylon is a sleeper,” Brown said. “He showed you what he can do early in the year. When he goes out there, we know what he can do.”