The emotion of losing friend and teammate D.K. Metcalf for the season spread across A.J. Brown’s face when asked about it after practice on Tuesday evening.
“He doesn’t deserve that given all that he’s been through and how hard he worked this offseason, how hard we worked this offseason,” Brown said. “It just..”
Brown tried to find the words to describe it, but paused as his emotions took over. Metcalf was present at practice on Tuesday with what appeared to be some sort of neck brace. He doesn’t yet know when he will have surgery, but his longterm prognosis is promising despite having to miss the final five games of the 2018 season.
Here’s A.J. Brown on losing D.K. Metcalf for the season. pic.twitter.com/JJ8S7lpmYC
— Brian Scott Rippee (@bsrippee) October 16, 2018
As different as it will feel for Brown on the field playing without his friend and dynamic teammate, things won’t be much different in terms of scheme. A.J. Brown’s transition to slot receiver when Phil Longo took control of the Ole Miss offense in 2017 proved to be a productive move that creates a nightmarish matchup for opposing defenses in the middle of the field. Having to account for the size of Metcalf and Damarkus Lodge while still covering Brown in the slot is an incredibly difficult ask for most secondaries.
Brown is 6-foot-1, 230 pounds with elite footwork and the ability to overwhelm opposing defensive backs physically. He played his freshman season at outside receiver, and the naturally question that came up following the news on Metcalf was whether Brown wold move back there.
“He is still going to play in the slot,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “He is going to start in the slot on Saturday.”
While the loss of Metcalf will certainly be felt by this offense, Ole Miss doesn’t have to move Brown to Metcalf’s spot on the outside opposite of Lodge. Why? Primarily because of the silently productive Braylon Sanders. The at an even six feet and 195 pounds, the sophomore doesn’t necessarily have the same physically imposing appearance of a Brown, Metcalf or Lodge, but Sanders has more than held his own this season. He caught four balls for 60 yards in the season-opening win over Texas Tech and then drew a start in place of an injured Lodge in the second game of the season, one that saw him catch four more passes for 133 yards and a touchdown.
“Braylon is a sleeper,” Brown said. “You wouldn’t expect him to come out there because it’s like you never seen him, but he showed you what he can do when he is out there early in the year. When we go out there, we know what he is going to do.”
Sanders has 12 catches for 247 yards and a score on the season.
“I trust him 100 percent,” wide receivers coach Jacob Peeler said. “I am looking forward to putting him out there and him doing what he does in practice every week.”
Keeping Brown in the slot does not mean that he cannot move outside or will not at certain points in the game. Longo left the possibility open of doing just that. The Rebels have a viable option in the slot behind Brown in true freshman Elijah Moore, who possesses a lot of speed and is more of a cookie cutter version of a slot receiver.
“Between the two of them, we will still have four or five guys we are confident in,” Longo said. “You don’t replace a D.K. Metcalf and we aren’t going to try to.”
Brown welcomes the idea of moving back outside should the opportunity arise.
“I’ve got no problem doing that,” Brown said. “That is home for me, honestly. I always mess around with the guys and do releases and stuff on the outside. If it comes down to that, that’s not a problem.”
Brown is far from a prototypical slot receiver and that’s part of what makes him so effective. But what are the different intricacies of playing outside versus the slot? Getting off the line of scrimmage is one of them.
“A little bit easier releasing inside because you don’t get as much true press coverage,” Peeler said. “A.J. played outside whole life. He is a football player and playing at this level in this league you are going to have to maneuver defenders whether you are at wideout or slot.”
Metcalf’s departure will have a trickle down effect in terms of depth. Expect to see a little more of Alex Weber, Moore and possibly Miles Battle. Getting Floyd Allen back from injury this week helps too.
As far as Brown being covered differently by opposing defenses with Metcalf not being on the field, Brown didn’t seem concerned with that either.
“I’m going to move around, so it is whatever,” Brown said. “It doesn’t matter. Even if they do, Elijah will go off or someone else. Whatever they do, we will make adjustments.”