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Why Ole Miss losing its top cornerback is a blow to the run defense

Jaylon Jones has a torn ACL, complicating the Rebels’ plan to load up against the run.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Texas Tech Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Jaylon Jones’ season started with a 94-yard kick return touchdown. It ended two quarters later with a major knee injury.

Matt Luke announced Monday that his starting cornerback tore his ACL in the season-opener against Texas Tech. Jones, a 2016 Freshman All-American who played in every game over the past two years, was expected to be one of the leaders of an Ole Miss defense desperately trying to improve this season. Ole Miss ranked 82nd in pass defense efficiency (success rate) and 83rd in pass defense explosiveness (isoPPP) in 2017.

The biggest effect of Jones’ injury, though, may end up coming in run defense.

After watching opposing rushing backs routinely eviscerate his defensive front last season, coordinator Wesley McGriff came into 2018 resolved to solve the problem by committing more defenders close to the line of scrimmage... even though that means leaving his cornerbacks alone against receivers outside.

“One thing for certain is we’re definitely going to get in the box and stop the run,” McGriff told The Oxford Eagle a few days before the Texas Tech game. “We’re going to have creative ways to get in the box, but we definitely have a commitment to get in the box and stop the run. If they’re going to beat us, they’re going to beat us throwing the ball.”

Stacking the box with safeties means asking his corners to play lots of one-on-one man coverage. McGriff, who used to coach DBs in the NFL, told his guys in fall camp to get ready to “live on an island” this season.

The good news for Ole Miss is that cornerback is one of the deepest positions on the roster. In addition to the other starter, Myles Hartsfield, McGriff can call on Ken Webster, Javien Hamilton, or Jalen Julius, all of which have starter-quality talent. Webster, who was once the top corner on the Rebel roster, seems to be recovered from the devastating knee injury that kept him sidelined for nearly two full seasons and is listed alongside Hartsfield at the top of the depth chart this week. Hamilton is a former JUCO transfer who played in every game last season, while Julius was named a 2016 Freshman All-American after signing with the Rebels as a four-star prospect.

Still, Jones’ injury complicates’ McGriff’s plans to load the box. Playing man-up on the outside was a risky strategy before losing the team’s top cover man. If the other DBs have trouble replacing Jones, Ole Miss will be forced to reassign the safeties to prevent big plays over the top, pulling them back from the line of scrimmage and opening running lanes.

“Corners are really, really hard to find that you can check all the boxes, and with [Jones] you check all the boxes,” McGriff told the Clarion Ledger. “A great kid, a hard worker, very, very knowledgeable, and when you get on the field he possesses all the talent you would want in a good cover guy. So there are a lot of things about him that will be hard to replace.”

Losing Jones also affects the team’s safety depth. In fact, that was Luke’s primary concern when addressing the media on Monday.

“Where it hurts us the most is Jaylon was able to come back and play safety if we had some injuries there. That’s where it hurts us a little bit more—with our flexibility more so than our corner depth... We’re going to have to figure out, if injuries do occur, what happens with safety. That would probably be Myles Hartsfield moving back into that area.”

On top of all that, Jones was a key special teamer. Not only did he house a kickoff in Houston, he chased down a Tech returner from behind to save a touchdown that would have cut Ole Miss’ lead to seven at the end of the first quarter. Luke said Monday that freshman Elijah Moore will take over kick return duties.