Hugh Freeze confirmed after practice on Tuesday that Ole Miss safety C.J. Moore has undergone surgery on a torn pectoral muscle suffered in the first week of fall camp. Freeze, who said he’s waiting to “see how rehab comes,” couldn’t predict how long Moore would be out, though his reminder to the gathered media that the junior has a redshirt season available seems to reinforce The Clarion-Ledger’s report that Moore is expected to miss the entire season.
The good news is that Moore isn’t a starter—the preseason depth chart released last month lists him as the No. 2 rover (the term Ole Miss uses for its strong safety) behind true freshman Myles Hartsfield. The bad news is that Moore is one of the few experienced upperclassmen in a young position group trying to replace Trae Elston and Mike Hilton.
“It just hurts us on our depth,” Freeze said. “[Moore] was definitely in the two-deep, so that’s something that you never want to happen... We’ve got some good young talent back there, but we haven’t really had to mess with the rotation too much yet. We’ll see how that goes.”
Freeze’s plan if the season started today would be to man the rover position with a pair of true freshmen: Hartsfield, a three-star, and Deontay Anderson, a four-star. Hartsfield has the distinct advantage of having been around as an early enrollee at spring camp, where he made an immediate impact on the coaching staff, but Anderson sounds like he’s been making up ground during his first week on the practice field.
“I thought Deontay Anderson showed up,” Freeze remarked. “He had a couple of picks, actually, in the red zone. I think he’s getting more of a feel for things.”
Another true freshman who could be in the mix is Jarrion Street, a high school running back who’s been moved to the secondary to bolster depth. (It’s also possible that Freeze elects to move sophomore Zedrick Woods, who played a lot at the end of last season, back over to rover from free safety, where the experienced but inconsistent C.J. Hampton is installed.)
“We need bigger safeties in this league. [Anderson] and Street both look like two SEC safeties back there,” Freeze said. “There’s a lot of things they’ve got to learn; they’re still young, so let’s not rush them, let’s don’t project them to be there yet. But I sure like the way they’ve looked.”
The problem, of course, is that given the brutal start to its schedule, Ole Miss doesn’t have the luxury of bringing its young defensive backs along slowly. An optimist would respond that none of the the Rebels’ formidable early opponents—Florida State, Bama and Georgia—pose a particularly dangerous passing threat. Indeed, two of those teams will likely field freshman quarterbacks and all three operate run-heavy attacks. Still, that reassuring asseveration fails to acknowledge that safeties—particularly strong safeties—also play a critical role in run defense.
That’s particularly true against FSU and it’s dreadlocked bolt of lightning, Dalvin Cook, whose open-field ability makes him the most dangerous second-level runner in all of college football. Last season, Cook averaged 10.1 highlight yards per opportunity (an advanced stat that measures yards gained after a back has cleared the line). The next best Power 5 runner? Leonard Fournette at 6.8. If you take a half-step in the wrong direction or misjudge your pursuit angle just a bit, Cook is running until the turf is painted.
If you don’t believe me, here’s a a quick reel of No. 4 liberating the souls of safeties from their corporeal shackles.
Given the lack of a proven passing threat, Ole Miss will probably attempt to slow the rushing attacks of Florida State and Georgia by bringing the rover down into the box as an extra run-stopper. In those cases, the rover will have to get on his horse if he sees a pass play developing—slow recognition of play action by one of the young freshmen could leave the secondary susceptible to potshots over the top, and both FSU’s Deondre Francois and Georgia’s Jacob Eason have the arm talent and downfield receivers to make the Rebs pay for such mistakes.
The reassuring part of all of this is that these young DBs are very talented and could develop into big-time playmakers once they learn the system. The key question for Ole Miss at this point is: how quickly can they catch on?