If face-smashing away in the defensive trenches comprises the most thankless job in American football, stalking the defensive backfield to shore up whatever leaks inevitably burst through holds a kind of quiet, violent glamour -- a peculiarity of mindset and physical aptitude that renders one uniquely suited for bashing into people at very high speeds in the open field. To that end, the Ole Miss Rebels safeties crew appears well situated to pick up where Cody Prewitt and company left off last season.
As the spread and tempo offenses have saturated the college game, so have defensive coordinators adjusted to a more rapid-fire, amorphous plan of containment. Dave Wommack's 4-2-5 scheme necessarily succeeds when personnel, play-calling and execution fall into perfect harmony, and the 2015 offseason has so far seen a couple of positional shifts among the Rebel safeties: Mike Hilton has moved from pure defensive back over to the rover spot, which Trae Elston then vacated for free safety duties. Tony Conner happily retains the Rebs' huskie mantle, in deference to his 6-0, 215 lbs. frame.
Sound defensive backfields thrive on two apposite currents: sticky-handed pass defense and seismically strong tackling. If both aspects are present, chances are that opposing quarterbacks and wideouts are in a for a very, very long day. Wommack's incarnation of the 4-2-5 sits something like seven generations removed from Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 scheme, insofar as Wommack's safety play allows for broad coverage from the rover and huskie positions. The huskie position, in particular, includes both run and pass defense duties, and it's here that Conner will earn his keep on Saturdays.
Let's look at the personalities on call at the rover, huskie and free safety positions for 2015.
Wommack apparently eschews such nomenclatural archaisms as "strong safety," which is what your high school defensive coordinator calls the Ole Miss "rover" spot. The rover thus requires wide lateral movement from sideline to sideline and also back to front, and Hilton brings a mountain of experience to the job. Entering his last season with the Landsharks, Mike Hilton has pulled significant time at every defensive backfield position in Wommack's spell book. He won the Chucky Mullins Courage Award in the spring and so will wear number 38 this season. With 29 starts in 36 games played, Hilton has logged 156 total tackles (13 for loss), two sacks, three forced fumbles, four interceptions and 17 passes defended. Not bad for a rather undersized guy (5-9, 184 lbs.) who can recite the secondary's play sheet verbatim.
Backing up Old Man Hilton will be Chief Brown who, though bigger than Mike (6-1, 202 lbs.), could see some improvement in the very important area of tackling. With 31 unassisted and 26 assisted takedowns while at Ole Miss, Brown missed the first eight games of 2014 due to an Achilles injury. Listed as "tied for No. 2 rover safety" on the Landsharks' depth chart, C.J. Moore will pull some safetyin' duties in addition to his special teams obligations.
Call it the "spy" or "mike" or "middle linebacker but also kind of a safety who sometimes slots into pass coverage," Ole Miss' "huskie" job seeks a candidate who wants to see more of the world than everyday linebacker work normally allows. Enter Tony Conner, then, who smashed, bashed and gashed his way to 135 total tackles over the last two seasons (he tallied 69 very nice stops in 2014). A healthy 14 of those career tackles were for loss, and we'll always remember him skying Matt Miller in last year's Kickoff Classic for his second career pick. Recall too the Alabama-then-A&M set last season when he career-highed himself twice in a row for 10 and 11 tackles respectively. Athlon named Conner a preseason All-American, and early watch lists like him as a definite maybe for the Jim Thorpe Award. Whatever the case, look for Tony pretty much all over the damn place this fall.
Rocking along with Tony, keep your eye on A.J. Moore, a biggish (6-0, 199 lbs.) all-purpose guy who impressed coaches in the Grove Bowl.
The free safety
If I'm Trae Elston, I march into Wommack's office tomorrow and demand, dammit, a ridiculously rad renaming of the free safety position. Like, um, Sniper, or Ripper, or Moose. Is the free safety gig so immutably ancient that to change the name may upset the cosmic balance of defensive coordinating? Or is it just too descriptive over and against the vagueries of "rover" and "huskie" that Wommack refuses to practice a little free association?
Laying these questions aside, Elston has the potential to offer up some real standout performances this season. Dude rocked 11 tackles against LSU last year in support of 182 takedowns for his career. Trae is fast -- he contributed to kickoff return duties in 2012 -- and despite scaling in at 5-11, 195 lbs., my man can hit people:
Having worked the rover position for three years, one hopes for Trae to bring the brute physicality of that experience to bear on the FS spot, where dive-bombing unsuspecting receivers is an article of faith. Elston's backup at free safety is C.J. Hampton (6-0, 179 lbs.), a somewhat unknown quantity who's logged 10 tackles in his time at Ole Miss.
Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson are gone, yes, but they left behind three especially experienced gymnasts who know what they're doing. Tony, Mike, and Trae: these men are tasked with arguing vigorously against opposing offenses' downfield hopes, and heaven help you on that crossing route.