Ole Miss’ atrocious run defense last season at times seemed to deflect scrutiny from a secondary that had plenty of its own struggles. Heavily reliant on underclassmen, the Rebels’ air defense ranked 71st in the country in passing S&P+ and 102nd in the country in passing down success rate. Ole Miss ranked 11th in the SEC in pass yards allowed per attempt.
Which makes it particularly concerning that the Rebels will go through spring camp without two of their top three cornerbacks. On the opening day of practice last week, it was announced that redshirt sophomore Jalen Julius fractured his arm and is out six weeks. Hours before, Hugh Freeze made the unsurprising statement that Kendarius Webster will be held out of camp while he continues to recover from a torn ACL that ended his 2016 season.
Webster entered last season as the top corner on the team, but lasted less than a quarter against Florida State before an awkward landing shredded his knee. Whether he’ll be ready by the beginning of the 2017 season remains unknown.
“Webster’s doing great,” Freeze said during his opening press conference last week, “but there’s no chance I would play him in spring even if they told me I could.”
Julius should be safely back in time for fall camp, but sitting out the spring means missing valuable reps as the Rebels transition to a new scheme under a new defensive coordinator. The good news is that newly-hired Wesley McGriff said he “plans to keep things simple” during spring by focusing more on fundamentals and techniques than schematics, meaning Julius hopefully won’t fall too far behind his peers in terms of learning the defense. On the other hand, Julius would have probably gained a lot by working on those fundamentals with McGriff, a seasoned secondary coach who spent three years with the New Orleans Saints.
To help replace Julius in the short term, Myles Hartsfield has moved from his starting rover safety spot to corner.
"Myles has really been a big surprise, he's done a tremendous job out on the corner," McGriff told The Clarion-Ledger this week. "He's got confidence contesting the ball and is very strong at the catch point. He's showing he has the ability to play at a high level."
Still, cornerback was already one of the thinnest positions on the team. Gone from last year’s roster is Tony Bridges, the talented but inconsistent transfer who never lived up to his billing as the top JUCO corner in the country. Carlos Davis, who stepped in after Webster’s injury last year, has graduated, as has Kailo Moore.
Still, there’s reason to be optimistic about the Rebel defensive backfield in the upcoming season. Jaylon Jones was named a Pro Football Focus Freshman All-American last season after posting the highest coverage grade in the country among frosh CBs. Julius should be back in time to man the other starting corner gig if Webster isn’t, and the Rebels’ wealth of safety depth should allow McGriff to lend cornerbacks coach Jason Jones reinforcements as needed. If the Rebel secondary can tighten up its fundamentals and avoid further injury, there’s reason to believe this unit could take a big step forward in 2017.