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Ole Miss football preview 2016: Youth at safety leaves a lot of question marks

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The Rebels return Tony Conner and a veteran group of corners, but are set to start a pair of underclassmen on the back end. Can they avoid game-breaking mistakes?

Arkansas v Mississippi Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

One of the more worrisome storylines to come out of Ole Miss’ fall camp was that of injuries, especially on defense. Tony Conner and (hopefully) Fadol Brown are progressively working their way back into the mix for the Landsharks, but last week Hugh Freeze confirmed that C.J. Moore had suffered a torn pectoral muscle and could end up missing the entire 2016 season. Hoo boy.

Though Moore isn’t a starter, his loss is significant in that it removes one of the few experienced defenders from the safety rotation. Nine months after Mike Hilton and Trae Elston played their last games as Rebels, Freeze and Dave Wommack are faced with sending two underclassmen out to fill the gaps at the rover and free safety spots. Enter true freshman Myles Hartsfield at rover and sophomore Zedrick Woods at free safety.

Defensive backs coach Corey Batoon voiced expected concern while speaking with The Clarion-Ledger:

When you look at the amount of snaps that we’ve lost with Trae and Mike, that’s the biggest thing you worry about is replacing that experience. From a talent standpoint, you feel good about it. I don’t think there’s an issue from a talent standpoint. It’s just experience.

Freeze shared similar thoughts with Scout.com:

We are very young back there; I forget how young we are sometimes. We’re playing a lot of young kids on the back end of our defense right now. I do think they have the potential to be very good. But they are young. You make one mistake against a team like the ones we have to play early on, it can be costly. (Ole Miss safeties coach) Corey (Batoon) does a good job back there of getting them prepared. They are young, though. They’ll make some mistakes.

So the question now becomes: how quickly can Woods and Hartsfield catch on, and how many big plays will they allow against top-tier talent in the early going of 2016?

Myles Hartsfield will start at rover

Hartsfield (5’11, 199 lbs.) played high school ball in New Jersey, and he’ll be called upon to fill the shoes left vacant by Trae Elston’s departure.

He’s about the same size as Elston, but his true frosh status does raise a lot of question marks. Here’s Freeze on Myles Hartsfield after last week’s scrimmage:

He made some (mental mistakes) on Sunday in the scrimmage, but he’s running with the ones for a reason. We’ve got confidence in him and think he can do the job. That doesn’t mean mistakes won’t be made, but we’ve got confidence in him.

FSU or Georgia may not have lights-out downfield attacks so early in September — to say nothing of Alabama — but Dalvin Cook can get himself into the second level in a hell of a hurry, where he’s put tacklers on ice skates all too often.

Still, though, Hartsfield played a fair amount of cornerback at Eastern Prep, and that coverage experience will come in handy on third-and-long. Backing up Hartsfield? Another true freshman: skydiving Deontay Anderson, who fractured his wrist a couple weeks ago but isn’t expected to miss any time.

Zedrick Woods seems to have taken the starting FS job

Ranked the No. 8 high school safety prospect in the country back in 2014, C.J. Hampton once looked destined for stardom. But after a rocky 2015 in which he looked downright lost at times, he enters his junior season behind a lightly-recruited true sophomore on the depth chart.

In fairness, Woods came on strong down the stretch last season, logging significant snaps against LSU and State. He played in all 13 games, tallying 25 tackles, one for loss, and an interception.

Here’s Freeze on Woods last week:

Solid player. He’s got a lot of snaps under his belt, so we’re depending on him not to make those mistakes back there, and he can play a lot of places for us, too, which helps.

Whether it’s Hampton or Woods at free safety, both have the luxury of experience, which is sorely lacking at the rover spot. Hampton’s inconsistency may be what’s holding up his move into the starting role. Still, there’s something to be said for the fact that if Woods starts giving up big gains, Hampton’s time at free safety last season could prove useful.

A (mostly) healthy Tony Conner is back at huskie

If Conner can make a full recovery from last year’s torn meniscus, and if he can remain healthy throughout the season, his work at the huskie position will be a welcome stability for the Landshark defense. At 6’0, 225 lbs., Conner is one of the best nickel defenders in the SEC. Athlon named him a fourth team preseason All-American. Conner has started four seasons at Ole Miss, and in 2015 he tallied 17 tackles, four of which were for loss. After tearing his meniscus against Alabama, he ended up missing the next six games of the season.

That it’s required nine months for Conner to reach “90 percent” on the knee recovery might become an issue in the first month of the season. FSU, Kirby Smart’s revamped Georgia, and Alabama are punishing foes, and Conner himself fell victim to the “body blow” theory in September of 2015.

Experience is no concern at cornerback

It’s here that the Landsharks aren’t wanting for depth and experience. Senior Tony Bridges returns to the Rebels’ coverage team, and he was second among the Landsharks with three interceptions last year. Kendarius Webster has reportedly also made considerable improvements from spring to fall camp, and his 41 tackles and 11 passes defended in 2015 were solid contributions.

Further, with the experience of Bridges, Webster and C.J. Hampton, Batoon expects to rotate the players in his defensive backfield to help mask the inexperience at safety:

Last year, you look at the reps, Trae never came off the field, Mike never came off the field. When Tony was healthy, he never came off the field ... I think we have that depth now that we didn’t in years past. We have more depth, more quality depth. We play more guys, we’ll be fresher and we’ll be more successful.

Woods and Hartsfield are young, yes, and other veterans are taking on new roles, but maybe there’s comfort to be found in the fact that they’re all forced to practice against one of the best quarterbacks and receiving corps in the country. And hell, maybe early season bouts with three powerhouses will go a long way toward settling these guys into the new-look Landsharks.