Ole Miss football fans are accustomed to secondaries that are a patchwork of two-star standouts, junior college transfers, and players who found their way into the depth chart as a defensive back from elsewhere. So it is a bit confusing for many of us to wrap our heads around the idea that this Rebel team is particularly deep in the defensive backfield, most notably at the safety positions.
As it stands now, Ole Miss has five athletes (six, if you're counting the safety/linebacker "Husky" position) who call could reasonably start at safety. Either they have demonstrated their acumen with actual playing time, or were highly recruited enough to earn legitimate looks at the position this spring. Those five players, and what we expect to see out of them, are:
- Senior Cody Prewitt - No discussion about safeties at Ole Miss can be had without mentioning the all-American from Bay Springs, Mississippi. Cody Prewitt started in 11 games last year as a free safety, where he led the SEC in interceptions (six) and the team in passes defended (13). He was number two on the Rebel defense in tackles (71) behind linebacker Serderius Bryant. What he lacks in elite coverage skills he more than makes up for in tackling abilities and an uncanny sense of where the ball or ballcarrier will be. There has been some chatter amongst Ole Miss fans about Cody's future, namely whether or not it's at free safety. He's more than a sure enough tackler to play strong safety, and has a pretty prototypical 4-3 outside linebacker frame, but I am thinking that the coaches may take an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach to Prewitt. He's an all-American at free safety; keep him there.
- Junior Trae Elston - After a freshman year where he earned a spot on the SEC's All-Freshman team and was dubbed the SEC's hardest-hitting freshman by ESPN.com, Rebel fans had Trae Elston penciled in as a starter at strong safety for the next three years. While he might not have lived up to fan expectations as a sophomore, he did make 11 starts of his own at the strong safety spot, notching 62 tackles, defending six passes, and recovering a pair of fumbles. Elston is long and rangy and will be the player to beat for his strong safety spot, but it's far from unreasonable to think that he could split time with other - as he did with Chief Brown this year - or play spot duty elsewhere.
- Junior Chief Brown - Chief started three games last year - two at strong safety, one at free - making 39 tackles, recovering one fumble, and intercepting one pass (on a pretty damn athletic play). In Hugh Freeze's spring press conference, Chief was mentioned as the number two guy behind Tony Conner at Husky, a move which makes sense considering Chief's 6'1", 200 pound build. Even then, I don't think it is too unreasonable to expect Chief to get looks all throughout the defense as he has over his career.
- Sophomore Anthony Alford - Here's how far Southern Miss has fallen: Anthony Alford started several games for them at quarterback as a true freshman in 2012. He left that program, sat out for a year, and is now trying to establish himself as a safety at Ole Miss. Rated as the No. 2 player in Mississippi and the No. 5 dual-threat quarterback in high school football at one point, Alford played quarterback on the Rebel scout team in 2013 while training to make the conversion to safety. Now that he's a regular part of the defensive backfield, he is bumping right up against Trae Elston for time at the strong safety spot. He is listed by Ole Miss as being 6'1", 208 pounds, and reportedly has the athleticism to be a legitimate starter at safety in the SEC. Fun fact: he's still a part of the Toronto Blue Jays' farm system as a prospect outfielder.
- Freshman C.J. Hampton - After a recruiting battle against Alabama, Ole Miss inked C.J. Hampton out of Meridian high school this past December as an early enrollee. Now that he's a full-time Ole Miss student, we get the rare treat of seeing a blue-chip freshman in action during spring drills. He is tall, long, and athletic enough to get legitimate looks at free safety, but we still aren't entirely sure what is in store for C.J. this year.