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Ole Miss’ young secondary is learning and they’re learning FAST

FSU and Bama were teachable moments. Georgia was an A+ exam.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Mississippi Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

When Derrick Jones intercepted a Jacob Eason pass between the hashes and housed it for the Rebs’ first pick-six of the season, ecstatic ebullience blasted through Rebel nation, because the Landsharks had finally, dammit, delivered a psyche-killing blow in 2016.

The numbers tell no lie that Ole Miss’ secondary — banged, bruised, and inexperienced — has improved by strides since the Week 1 debacle in Orlando. FSU finished that game with a passing success rate of 54 percent. Against Alabama — who didn’t throw much at all — the secondary held their opponent to a 29 percent success rate through the air, but Jalen Hurts completed passes of 22, 30 and 45 yards. Coming into the Georgia game, Ole Miss’ secondary was allowing a 42 percent success rate on passing plays, which ranked them 84th in the country.

During Saturday’s beatdown of in Oxford, however, Ole Miss’ patchwork secondary of youngsters and positional transplants held Georgia to a passing success rate of 32 percent. Sure, the Ole Miss’ defense profited from five dropped passes by the Bulldogs’ shaky-handed receivers, but even if you count those as completions, freshman Jacob Eason connected on just 58 percent of his passes (if you don’t, it drops to 44 percent). Eason, whose downfield accuracy was severely exposed by the tight coverage of Rebel defenders, finished the day with just 3.81 yards per attempt.

In short, Ole Miss’ secondary showed that it might be turning the corner.

The young safeties are improving, which means fewer explosive plays.

This secondary was dangerously young even before Kendarius Webster, a junior and the best cover man on the team, shredded his knee on the first series of the season.

Said Freeze towards the end of fall camp: “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.”

Indeed, poor technique and mental mistakes allowed 11 completions of 20 yards or more against FSU and Bama. But with starting safeties Zedrick Woods (a true sophomore) and Myles Hartsfield (a true freshman) stabilizing on the back end, Georgia’s only explosive pass play of the game was a 29-yard completion on a fake punt.

“They haven't played much football and I think [the coaching staff] has worked hard at coaching them the past few weeks to not give up explosive plays, to get their eyes right and to be disciplined on every snap,” Freeze said this week. “We still weren't as disciplined as I would have liked for them to be last week, but it was much better than weeks before.”

Welcome back to the defense, Derrick Jones.

Jones showed up in Oxford as a DB, but switched to receiver before the 2014 season. He produced little over the next two seasons and was buried on this year’s loaded wideout depth chart, so the coaches flipped him back to defense after Webster went down against FSU. An undisclosed violation of team rules during the offseason meant the senior had to sit through the first three games, but he didn’t waste time making an impact last Saturday.

If Jones can be a viable contributor the rest of the way, it’ll be a huge lift for the cornerback depth.

Speaking of cornerbacks, Jalen Julius and Jaylon Jones looked great.

In a way, Ole Miss is actually down both of of its projected opening-day starters. Tony Bridges, who two years ago was the top JUCO corner in the country, has disappeared into the depth chart since Carlos Davis started in front of him against FSU. He didn’t appear against UGA until Ole Miss had a five-score lead in the second half.

That’s in part due to the emergence of Julius and Jones. Julius, a redshirt freshman and former three-star, has started opposite Davis in the three games since Webster’s injury. He had his best outing yet against Georgia, sticking tight to receivers all game. When he was spelled, it was typically by the true freshman Jones, who was praised by Freeze after the game as having “grown up today.” Eason threw into Jones’ coverage six times and connected just once for a 13-yard completion.

Tighter coverage and improved tackling from guys like Julius and Jones has improved what had been a terrible third-down defense. It’s been third downs this season where the secondary has been most volatile, especially third and longs. FSU’s third-down efficiency was right at 50 percent (9-18), while Bama’s was 47 percent (7-15). Against Georgia, they held the Bulldogs to a 25 percent conversion rate (4-16).

Julius, Jones, Hartsfield, Woods — these youngsters had undergone two heavy trails by fire against FSU and Bama. They stared down the gaping maw of Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban’s offensive attacks and came away better for it. On Saturday, they looked Georgia’s receivers and quarterback in the face offered violent refusal.