After losing two All-Americans to the NFL in Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt, you’d expect the Ole Miss secondary to take a big step back and need a year or two to recover. But after some strong recruiting and player development, the Rebels secondary looks like it could once again be the strong spot of one of the nation’s top defenses.
The cornerback position will certainly miss Golson, who was second in the nation with 10 interceptions last season, also making 43 tackles and eight pass deflections. But the Rebels return sophomore Kendarius Webster, who started two games and had 22 tackles and two pass breakups his freshman year. Ole Miss also has junior college transfers Tee Sheppard and Tony Bridges joining the rotation, who were both ranked as the top junior college cornerback by at least one major recruiting site in their respective years.
Sheppard joined the team in 2014, but had to sit out the season with a toe injury and will be seeing his first in-game action this fall. Meanwhile, Bridges joined the team in time for spring practice this year, so both players, juniors, will be prepared to make an instant impact this fall as the starting duo at corner. Bridges is listed at 6 feet tall and Sheppard is listed 6’1”, which makes for outstanding height and length at the cornerback position. Couple this with their athleticism, and Bridges and Sheppard should be key in covering the big, athletic wide receivers in the SEC. This attribute should allow the Rebels to improve on jump balls and lessen the height advantage wide receivers typically have over defensive backs.
What makes the cornerback position even stronger is the depth behind Sheppard and Bridges. Webster already has starting experience and great size for the position, standing at 5’11”. Joining him will be junior Kailo Moore, who is one of the fastest players on the team and also runs track for the Rebels. It was unclear what position he would play when he first got to campus, but he made the permanent switch to cornerback last year, and now with some experience he should be poised to take on a bigger role this season. Moore was a special teams standout and saw some time at cornerback last season, but should see a big uptick in minutes this season.
This depth will allow the Rebels to rotate their cornerbacks and keep them fresh without having to worry about teams taking advantage of their backups.
The safety position has some changes coming as well. Throughout his career at Ole Miss, senior Mike Hilton did whatever was necessary to help out the Rebels secondary. Hilton played husky his first season, moved to cornerback, and now, after spending some time there last season, is the starting free safety. Hilton led the team in tackles last season with 71, and added three interceptions and seven pass breakups. He should move into the safety role comfortably. At the rover safety position, Trae Elston will return as the starter after having the job each of his three previous seasons, giving the Rebels a steady player in run support. Senior Chief Brown and sophomore C.J. Hampton should be the primary backups at safety and see plenty of time in the rotation, with Brown back from an Achilles injury that sidelined him for most of 2014 and Hampton having the experience to make an impact after a solid freshman season.
Meanwhile, the husky position, which is a hybrid safety/linebacker position in Ole Miss’ 4-2-5 defense, will be manned by junior Tony Conner for the third year in a row. Conner was second on the team in tackles with 69, along with nine tackles for loss and an interception. A number of young players could see time as his backup and as a backup safety, including C.J. and A.J. Moore and D.K. Buford.