In case you missed it, it sounds like All-American Ole Miss defensive back Tony Conner, who hasn't seen the field since undergoing knee surgery in late September, is going to play against Arkansas this Saturday.
"No doubt Tony Conner will try to go," Hugh Freeze said during his Monday press conference. "He'll attempt at it. The goal is to get through this season playing in some of these critical last games. We have this week, and then an open week where we can control the swelling so we can play the last two. He's going to give it a go."
As much as it's sucked not having Conner for the last six weeks (a stretch that saw the Rebs go 4-2), there's no three-game stretch on the schedule that Ole Miss would rather have him on the field. And I don't just say that because the home stretch against Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State will decide whether the Rebs finally make it to Atlanta -- I say it because Conner will be the key to matching up against three of the most balanced offenses in the league.
Think about it like this: what makes Conner so damn good is his versatility from the husky position, a defensive back/linebacker hybrid that demands he be as adept at playing the run as he his covering a receiver. One play he's crashing down into a run gap to meet a running back (he was second on the team last year in tackles for loss), the next he's turning his hips and blanketing the slot receiver downfield (he was second on the team in pass breakups as a freshman).
Well it just so happens that the Rebs' remaining opponents are three of the SEC's most balanced offenses in terms of efficiency on the ground and in the air. Arkansas, LSU and State all rank in the league's top four in both yards per carry and yards per pass attempt.
(I used yards per attempt instead of yards per game because all three run at a slower pace and rank in the bottom half of the SEC in plays per game.)
|Team||Games played||Yards per carry||Rank||Yards per pass||Rank||Mean combined rank|
You traditionally think of Arkansas, LSU and State as ground-and-pound teams, but all three will burn your ass through the air if you crowd the box and overcompensate for the run. Arkansas and State share second place in the league with 19 completions of 30 yards or more (Ole Miss is first). Brandon Allen and Dak Prescott are both top three in passing touchdowns and passing yards per game (Chad Kelly is first). And while LSU's Brandon Harris doesn't have to throw that often (he's 12th among SEC starting QBs in attempts per game), he's been damn good when he does throw, holding the conference's second best passer rating behind Allen.
Arkansas is an especially tough offense to match up with. Put an extra linebacker on the field to slow down Alex Collins and they'll hit one of their big, athletic tight ends off of play action. Bret Bielma loves feeding it to that position; Hunter Henry (who leads SEC tight ends in receiving) and Jeremy Sprinkle are the only teammates to rank in the conference's top 10 in receiving yards by non-wide receivers.
Tony Conner is the perfect Swiss army knife for that matchup problem. He has the size and athleticism to cover a guy like Henry and tackles well enough to hold his own in run support against a guy like Collins. That allows Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack to stay in his base 4-2-5 and feel comfortable against both the downhill run and the play action pass.
Ole Miss has struggled to stop tight ends without Conner: Vandy's Steven Scheu and Florida's Jake McGee, who both rank among the SEC's top 10 receiving tight ends, combined for 11 receptions and a touchdown against the Conner-less Rebels. In fairness, both of those games came before Mike Hilton moved full time to the husky spot (and Scheu was significantly less productive in the second half when Hilton started rotating down).
But while Hilton has done an excellent job in stabilizing the husky position, his move away from safety has had some consequences on the back end. Last Saturday, the Rebs gave up six passes of 20-plus yards to an Auburn offense that came in averaging just over two per game. That included C.J. Hampton -- who's been starting at safety since Hilton moved to husky -- blowing a coverage on a 47-yard touchdown pass.
It'll be interesting to see how the defensive backfield rotation changes once Conner is healthy enough to resume full-time husky duties (presumably against LSU after the bye week). Despite infrequent breakdowns like the one above, Hampton's been relatively solid, so it's not like there's a rush to get him off the field. My guess is that Hilton will keep rotating around, splitting his time between the rover safety and spelling Conner at husky.
No matter what, having Conner back will go a long way in matching up with balanced offenses down the stretch.