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DK Metcalf’s injury gives critical reps to Ole Miss’ young receivers

Let’s look at the silver lining.

NCAA Football: Southern Illinois at Mississippi Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

A.J. Brown dropped his head low between his wide shoulders and shook it slowly, drawing in an unsteady breath. “I don’t even want to get emotional, honestly,” he said softly, clearly doing just that.

He’d been asked about the season-ending neck injury suffered by his teammate D.K. Metcalf last week in Little Rock. The pair of star wide receivers signed at Ole Miss together in 2015 and have spent the bulk of the time since then destroying SEC defensive backs. “Honestly he doesn’t deserve it with everything he’s been through, how hard he worked this offseason.”

On Saturday, Brown and the Ole Miss offense will take the field against Auburn’s No. 1 ranked pass defense. As deep as the Rebels are at receiver, Metcalf’s freakish blend of size and speed will be sorely missed down the stretch of the SEC gauntlet. Including Auburn, three of the Rebels’ five remaining opponents rank top 30 in defensive S&P+.

There is a silver lining: Metcalf’s absence provides an opportunity for young receivers.

Fortunately, Metcalf isn’t expected to suffer any longterm effects from the injury. As long as he’s healthy by the spring, he’ll likely join Brown as a first-round pick in the NFL Draft (his dad, Ole Miss legend Terrence Metcalf, told Rebel Grove this week that D.K. hasn’t made a decision about declaring early, but its hard to imagine him turning down potential first-round money if he’s healthy). Senior DaMarkus Lodge will be NFL-bound as well, meaning the Rebels will enter 2019 without three guys who currently rank in the top five in the SEC in receiving yards per game.

Which means the younger guys on the roster—namely sophomore Braylon Sanders and true freshman Elijah Moore—need all of the reps they can get. The fact that Ole Miss will also be breaking in a new quarterback next season makes those extra snaps even more valuable. Brown and Lodge will continue eating up the bulk of the targets this season, but Metcalf’s absence opens up significant playing time for Sanders and Moore.

With Metcalf sidelined, Sanders saw a career-high seven targets against Arkansas. He only caught three of those for 35 yards, but we’ve already seen what this guy can do when the ball is thrown his way consistently. Thrown to six times against Southern Illinois, Sanders had four catches for 133 yards and a touchdown. That included this brilliance...

Moore wasn’t thrown to against Arkansas, but expect that to change. A four-star who ranked barely outside the top 200 overall prospects in the 2018 recruiting class, he’s already shown off his elite athleticism this year. In addition to taking over as the team’s top kick returner, Moore tallied a combined eight receptions for 89 yards and a score against Kent State and Louisiana-Monroe.

Sanders is averaging over 20 yards per catch on his 22 receptions, while Moore has hauled in 78 percent of his 14 targets. Small sample sizes to be sure, but there again lies the silver lining in Metcalf’s injury: both guys should see an uptick in action down the stretch and will enter 2019 as the top two receiving threats on this offense.

If Ole Miss gets up or down big in any of its remaining game, you might see another true freshman wideout. Miles Battle hasn’t seen action this season and is clearly destined for a redshirt, but he may benefit from the NCAA’s new rule, which allows a guy to play in up to four games without losing his redshirt. A four-star out of Houston, Battle will be the third piece in what will be a young but formidable 2019 receiving corps.

Losing Metcalf sucks, but it could help these youngsters get off to a quicker start next season.