One of the primary reasons Ole Miss was the 121st-ranked defense in college football last season was its inability to tackle in space. Opponents frequently tested the Rebels with quick-hitting plays on the perimeter with screens and leaking backs and receivers into the flats. When opposing backs reached the second level on the ground, they were rarely met with much resistance. The Rebels allowed 5.1 yards per rush last season. Opposing quarterbacks completed 63.3 percent of their passes.
Memphis followed a similar script in its 15-10 win over Ole Miss on Saturday, but the Rebels defense fared much better both on the ground and in the short-to-intermediate passing game. Tigers quarterback Brady White averaged 7.5 yards per completion. White was 23-of-31 for 173 yards with an interception. Head coach Mike Norvell peppered Ole Miss with bubble screens and quick passing routes and, for the most part, the secondary was up for the challenge.
“Guys flew around,” safeties coach Charles Clark said. “The biggest thing was communication. We got the calls in, guys communicated and called out different things we saw. We work on tackling every single day. It is a focal point for us.”
Memphis averaged 3.8 yards per rush.
Sophomore corner Keidron Smith put together perhaps the most complete performance of any member of the secondary. He tied for the team lead in tackles with seven. Six were solo tackles. As a freshman, Smith played his way into a significant role on a putrid defense and appears to be building off of that experience in his second season of college football.
“Confidence, man,” Smith said. “It showed out there on Saturday.”
Going into the game, Smith figured Memphis would test Ole Miss in space. Mike MacIntyre echoed that sentiment after the game and his men held up well.
“It is just discipline,” Smith said. “Coach Mac is more focused on tackling than we were last year. We way more tackling drills as opposed to us just doing defensive back drills.”
Until Ole Miss is able to consistently prove it has improved in this area, opponents will likely continue to offer similar looks to what Memphis did, including a struggling Arkansas team that barely clipped Portland State at home in its opener last week.
The Razorbacks won’t boast a dual-quarterback look per say, but starter Ben Hicks — an SMU transfer who played under head coach Chad Morris for two seasons — didn’t exactly wow in his Razorback debut. He was 14-of-29 for 143 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. Texas A&M transfer Nick Starkel, who battled Hicks for the starting job in camp, saw limited action in the season opener and was 4-of-5 passing.
Regardless who is playing quarterback, the secondary will be up against a diverse and fairly dangerous Arkansas receiving corps that features two large targets in 6-foot-5 Trey Knox and 6-foot-3 Treylon Burks, as well as a couple of quicker guys in the slot.
“They have some speed guys and some bigger guys,” Clark said. “They pose some match up issues. We will have to do a good job of communicating and moving guys around.”
— The Ole Miss offensive line is keenly aware its performance against Memphis simply won’t cut it. The Rebels were manhandled up front by the Tigers front seven, the primary cause for the offensive dysfunction in a first half that netted just 42 total yards. Ole Miss compiled 173 yards of offense on 53 plays for the game.
“We have to focus in and get better,” senior Alex Givens said. “We grew up a lot last game and this game is huge for us to show our fans that we actually did grow up and we will play better.”
Givens, whose status for last weeks game was uncertain due to a back procedure he underwent on July 18, played 37-of-53 snaps and thinks his body responded well to physical toll the game took. He acknowledged part of his limitation was conditioning-related, but thinks that will improve this week.
Offensive line coach Jack Bicknell said the unit needs to find an eighth man to trust enough to be in the rotation. Ole Miss played six linemen against Memphis. True freshman tackle Nick Broeker is the seventh. Matt Luke declared Monday that Broeker will play against Arkansas. Finding the eighth guy and correcting the mistakes of the six who did play are Bicknell’s primary goals moving froward.
— Smith was in a green no-contact uniform in practice on Tuesday, something he says is just a precaution for a stinger. The sophomore guaranteed he will be ready come Saturday.
— True freshman offensive lineman Darius Thomas was at practice in a green jersey. Thomas did not practice in fall camp and has not participated in football activities since arriving on campus after it was discovered he had a heart condition. Luke said last mont that Thomas would be reevaluated in September and left the door open for Thomas to play later in the season.
PHOTO CREDIT: JOSHUA MCCOY — Ole Miss Athletics