Every starting Ole Miss defensive back will be named an all-American this year. Each of them will have a dozen interceptions. This will happen while Ole Miss wins the national title and is invited to compete in the NFL playoffs because, dangit, they're just going to be so hyperbolically good. Whatever SEC team you cheer for that isn't Ole Miss will be just the daggum worst and you're all going to be so embarrassed by it that you're going to fire your coach and then fire yourselves. It'll all be one big hilarious Twitter meme that'll make you quit the internet forever.
There, is that enough hyperbole for y'all to nitpick over? Great. Onto what we saw during last Saturday's Grove Bowl out of our Ole Miss Rebel defensive backs. What I'm going to do is feature the penciled-in starters out of that group as individuals before highlighting the "best of the rest" so to speak. I could conceivably heap praise on a lot of guys in this bunch, but there are few that really deserve to be highlighted as having standout springs, including...
Really, this is a story about Tee Shepard and Tony Bridges. We've watched Mike Hilton, Tony Conner, andTrae Elston enough to have a pretty good idea what we're getting out of them. The real question was whether Shepard and Bridges - the back-to-back top junior college cornerbacks to sign with Ole Miss - would look SEC ready.
When Tee went down with a toe injury during last fall's camp, the grumblings around campus were that Ole Miss lost a starter in the secondary. After seeing his quickness, ball skills, and tackling ability in the Grove Bowl, it's apparent why people felt that way about his abilities. Tee is simply an excellent cornerback. During the Grove Bowl he had four tackles, one pass break up, and a pick that wasn't impressive itself - Stringfellow should have used his body to come back and catch the ball - but did allow him to show off his return abilities.
Every Ole Miss team needs a dreadlocked, tightly stitched together mass of fast twitch muscle, and Tony Bridges fits that bill on this defense. He was pretty raw during last Saturday's Grove Bowl, but did notch a tackle and a pass breakup on the afternoon. He's lightning quick and uses his hands very well. He also has excellent size (listed at 6'2", 185 pounds) for a cornerback (or an Ole Miss cornerback, at least), which means he's able to shed blocks more effectively and help out in run support.
Really, Tee Shepard and Tony Bridges stole the show defensively during the spring drills. We all know what we're going to get out of Robert Nkemdiche, C.J. Johnson (even at a new position), Tony Conner, and so on. Seeing these two fly around the field and make plays was unexpected fun.
So this guy is pretty quietly one of the best safeties in the country. "That's crazy," some will say all the way to him being a first round draft pick next year. But consider how steady and consistent he has been for the last two years on campus. His frame, range, tackling ability, and instinctual play are exactly what NFL scouts want. He's so good, in fact, that didn't see much time in the Grove Bowl, with the backups (some of which are talked about below) getting most of the reps at his hybrid SS/OLB Huskie position.
On almost every play downfield, Trae Elston was there. The now senior safety does not have the coverage skills of much of the rest of the Landshark secondary, but he makes up for it with his uncanny range and football smarts. I don't think Elston's poised for some sort of breakout all-SEC type of year (the aforementioned all-America honors aside, obviously) but there's no doubt that he's going to be the experienced anchor around which the back side of the defense pivots.
Hilton's got a bum thumb, so he wasn't able to play. He did win the Chucky Mullins award though, which is appropriate. He's a scrappy, heady guy who wasn't very highly recruited but has played his ass off all the way into a starting safety spot.
Others to Watch
It feels a bit unfair to put Kendarius Webster as one of the "others to watch," but as of right now he's coming in to spell guys in starting roles, or working against a third receiver. On most Ole Miss teams of the past decade or so, he'd be a starter. He's bigger and more physical than your average nickel corner, but did seem to get beat more often than we'd be comfortable with. Or maybe that's something you want to see out of these receivers? Eh, spring games, amirite?
CJ Hampton will be an excellent safety in time, and I think we are all comfortable with him backing up Trae Elston. He had a pair of tackles on the game and, like the player he sits behind in the depth chart, is rangy enough to make a lot of plays.
Ditto on Chief Brown. I like him backing up Mike Hilton and think he could also see time behind Tony Conner.
The Moore triplets (no, Kailo Moore is not related to C.J. or A.J. Moore, nor am I sure that they have very much in common - they all share a last name, is all) received a lot of snaps in the Grove Bowl, particularly C.J. and A.J. backing up at rover and husky, respectively. And Kailo Moore was surprisingly involved in a trio of tackles as a backup cornerback. I still wouldn't wager on these three seeing too much time outside of certain situations and on special teams, but they will provide depth in the secondary that is actually of an SEC caliber, at least athletically.
So, all of this lofty praise raises an interesting question: does this secondary have a chance at being better than last year's, despite the departures of Senqeuz Golson and Cody Prewitt. Uh, yeah, it already is. Probably the best secondary in Ole Miss history, in my opinion. Beware the landsharks, opposing receivers don't stand a chance, everything is awesome, nothing bad will happen, stop worrying.
(In reality, the answer is that this is a spring game, ya dummy, so don't worry about it too much. These guys are great, and have the potential to be even greater. Get excited about them.)