When Ole Miss and LSU battle Saturday in a Southeastern Conference showdown, it won’t just be another game against a top-tier team for sophomore Rebel safety Trae Elston. The Oxford, Ala., native will be facing off against his former high school teammate and “best friend” in Tiger linebacker Kwon Alexander.
Elston and Alexander grew up in the same neighborhood and have been playing football together for years, but Saturday will be the first time the duo will compete on opposing sides, as Alexander did not play against Ole Miss last season because of an injury.
“He’s a brother to me,” Elston said of Alexander. “We grew up playing middle school ball together. That was our first year together, and we moved all the way up. So we have a lot of chemistry together.”
Elston and Alexander have both made immediate impacts on their respective teams.
Elston started most of his freshman year at safety and has held that spot during his second year in Oxford. The 6-foot, 190-pounder is currently tied for second on the team in total tackles with 35. He also has a fumble recovery, 1.5 tackles for loss and two pass breakups.
Alexander is listed as the backup at strong side linebacker on the Tigers’ depth chart, but he has started six games so far this season. Alexander has 35 tackles, which is the third-most for LSU, to go along with 3.5 tackles for loss, three pass breakups and a quarterback hurry.
Elston said he keeps in contact with Alexander and Alexander’s father, whom he calls “a father figure,” each week, and they always try to hold each other up, even when they’re playing each other.
“We talk all the time,” Elston said. “We always give each other encouragement –– like keep grinding. I’m real close with his dad, so his dad called me to see if I was OK after I went down this weekend.
“He always checks in with both of us because we grew up in the same neighborhood.”
Elston’s play over the past season and a half has shown that he doesn’t mind a bit of contact.
Last season, Elston was suspended for the Texas game by the SEC for a hit on a defenseless receiver against UTEP. This year, players can be ejected during a game for a hit on a defenseless player, and Elston was one of two Ole Miss players who had it called on them last weekend.
Elston was flagged for targeting after a big hit he put on Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans. As soon as the play happened, it seemed Elston knew right away that he was about to be called for the penalty.
“I know when I hit him the crowd got excited and then it died on me, so I knew something was going to happen,” Elston said. “That’s the first thing I was thinking. I got a little frustrated.”
After a review, Elston was allowed to stay in the game because the play was not deemed to be malicious. However, the targeting penalty has been under a lot of scrutiny all season, and many expect the NCAA to change the rule in the offseason.
“Everyone is struggling with it,” Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. “The officials are struggling. I do understand Trae’s being called. At the time when it occurred, he launched a bit in an upward motion. I kind of can accept the penalty, whether it’s called targeting or a late hit, like it used to be. I kind of understand that one.
“I think it will be revisited after the year.”
Elston, who is known for delivering hard hits, said he tries not to think about the new rules that go along with the penalty, but he admitted that it does get in his mind when he’s running around.
“It’s hard about the targeting rule, man,” Elston said. “You just have to react. Hopefully, you react quick enough not to get a targeting (call). But I mean, you just have to play ball, and if it happens, it happens. That’s how I play the game.”
Elston will now try to take that mindset into another showdown against a top-10 team. At safety, the sophomore will have his hands full attempting to slow down an LSU passing attack that includes one of the best wide receiver duos in the country in Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry.
Landry leads LSU in receptions (46) and touchdowns (seven) and is second in receiving yards (674). Beckham has a team-high 733 receiving yards to go along with 37 catches and six touchdowns.
“Odell, one of the first few plays last season, he ran a double route. He’s got great speed,” Elston said. “Landry has good hands.
“Coach will give us a good game plan. We’re just going to do what he does. They’re great receivers –– good hands, great speed. We just have to try to stop them.”
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