Ole Miss secondary to suffer growing pains without Golson, Prewitt
Ole Miss boasted one of the best defenses in all of college football in 2014, but it won’t be able to enjoy that luxury for much longer.
The Rebels stand to lose a ton of talent on that side of the ball, including two starting linebackers and two All-SEC performers from the secondary in cornerback Senquez Golson and safety Cody Prewitt.
Every team in America will lose stars when bowl season comes to a close this January, but Golsen and Prewitt will leave as big of a hole as any departing stars in the SEC when they leave Oxford.
Golson led the SEC in interceptions this year and developed a knack for coming up with big plays against star receivers when Ole Miss needed them most. Prewitt was an All-American last year who may have been even better this season, making plays in the box as well as in the back-end of the defense.
Thanks to contributions from both seniors, the Rebels allowed fewer than 190 yards per game through the air this season, even though 11 of 14 SEC teams averaged at least that many yards through the air on offense in 2014. It’s easy to argue Golson and Prewitt were more valuable to their team than any pair of defensive players in the country, and that won’t be easy for Ole Miss to overcome next year.
Just take a look at who Ole Miss has coming back in the secondary next season. There’s talent abound, but it hasn’t been developed yet. Instead, the group of returning defensive backs is marked by upside and unrealized potential. That’s not to say the talent won’t come to fruition next season, but it does remain an unknown for now.
Next year’s leader in the secondary will likely be star sophomore Tony Conner, a former five-star recruit (according to 247 Sports), who’ll be far and away the Rebels best defensive back when the 2015 season begins. He’s as versatile as Prewitt and has a chance to be even better than the All-American when his career comes to a close.
After Conner, however, things get a bit messy.
The Rebels will return only a handful of guys with playing experience, and none of them could be considered impact players other than Conner and fellow safety Mike Hilton, who does a lot of what Conner does in terms of playing both in the box and at a more traditional safety position.
Trae Elston is a quick defensive back and a sure tackler for his size, but he’s never been asked to serve as anything more than a complementary piece on defense. A starting role is a completely different set of circumstances, and it can be a difficult adjustment for some players to move into the starting lineup after multiple years as a situational player.
Kalio Moore, C.J. Hampton, Kendarius Webster, Carlos Davis, C.J. Moore and A.J. Moore will all learn that same lesson in 2015 when Golson and Prewitt are no longer anchoring the secondary.
Tee Shepard may be the most talented corner on the team, but he missed the entire 2014 season with a torn tendon in his toe. He’ll need to familiarize himself with the speed of the SEC and regain confidence in his footwork before he can fully reach his full potential, and that could take just one week of practice or six games on the regular season schedule. We won’t know until we know, and that’s dangerous for Ole Miss.
As of Dec. 11, the Rebels have four cornerbacks and a safety in their 2015 recruiting class, but only one of them is a four-star recruit — Tony Bridges of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Bridges is the No. 6 junior college transfer in the nation, and he could make an immediate impact by transitioning from the junior college level as opposed to the high school level.
But even Bridges will need time to catch up to the speed and athleticism of the SEC. He could make a more immediate impact than other recruits or young players working their way into starting roles, but it won’t be as easy as flipping a switch.
Head coach Hugh Freeze will continue to attract talent to Oxford, and in a year or two when most of his returning talent has developed into productive veterans Ole Miss could once again have one of the premier defenses in the nation.
Next year’s secondary will suffer growing pains worse than most units throughout the conference while Golson and Prewitt are playing on Sundays. The SEC may not have the same crops of star quarterbacks it once did, but Ole Miss won’t have the stars its grown accustomed to in the secondary, either.