“It was good,” he said. “I just tried to come out and give 110 percent and do whatever they needed me to do when my number was called.”
A new-look Ole Miss offensive line breaking in two new starters and bringing along another, Aaron Morris, who was in his first action since a season-ending injury, struggled to move a Boise State team committed to stopping the run. The interior had the most trouble, both with consistent push and false starts. Left guard Morris was flagged for three of the Rebels’ seven false start penalties alone.
Ole Miss was facing second-and-5 and clinging to a 7-6 lead with 14:37 to play when Wilkins took a between-the-tackles handoff from quarterback Bo Wallace. There was little or no room to spare. No matter. He dragged a handful of defenders to the first-down marker and extended the drive.
The Rebels went on to score the first of four fourth-quarter touchdowns. His team needed him. He delivered.
“Whatever they need me to do,” Wilkins said. “If they need me to run up the middle and get the hard yards, I’ll do it. But if they need me to take passes, I’ll do whatever I can do. I want to show myself more. But I think for a first game, that was good. I can come out and do it better as the season goes on and keep showing my talent. I was pleased with how I played Thursday.”
“He pushed the pile,” Wallace said of the play. “He’s physical. He’s done a great job from his freshman year to this year in the physicality of the run game. He’s going to be a weapon for us. We just have to get a better push on the offensive line. I’m sure (Ole Miss offensive line) coach (Matt) Luke and those guys will be ready for Saturday.”
Wilkins was a consensus four-star prospect by all major recruiting services his senior year at St. Benedict at Auburndale High School in Cordova, Tenn. But a torn ACL ended his final season after seven games. He had rushed for 1,041 yards and 14 touchdowns.
The injury resulted in Wilkins taking a redshirt last season.
“It’s tough,” Wilkins said. “I know a lot of people go through it, but it’s tough. Nobody wants to hear that. But (Ole Miss head) coach (Hugh) Freeze and them had a good plan for me. That’s what I should have done, especially coming off my injury. I was happy.
“I say I was ready last year, but I probably wasn’t. It was really the mental aspect of it, getting back to 100 percent mentally. Physically, I was there. But I didn’t have it through my mind. I don’t think about it at all. I just got out and play and do what I can do.”
And as he’s proven so far, what he can do is get tough yards when his team needs it. He brings a different dynamic – a big, physical presence – to the Ole Miss backfield.
“I was upset at first because everyone wants to come in and play,” Wilkins said. “I’d never really had to sit out for anything. It took a lot and kind of humbled me. But I came back stronger and it helped me out a lot for the future.”
Better in coverage, Conner already excelling in year two:
Sophomore defensive back Tony Conner has produced since play one.
Conner recorded the one and only interception of his freshman season on the first play of his Ole Miss career – against Vanderbilt in a 39-35 win in Nashville a year ago. The Rebels (1-0) return to Nashville Saturday for a date with the Commodores (0-1) at 3:30 p.m. at LP Field.
The interception stood in contrast to what many had considered one of the few, if only, weaknesses in Conner’s game: coverage. Apparently he needed all of one offseason to quiet any such concerns.
Conner, named a freshman All-American a year ago, had six tackles, one tackle for loss and his second interception vs. Boise State. The theft was a result of Conner baiting BSU quarterback Grant Hedrick into throwing a pass to a receiver who appeared open, only for Conner to cut under the pass, adjust to the ball in the air and haul it in.
“He’s always been a good player and is athletic, but he’s doing much better in pass drops than he did last year,” Freeze said. “He has always been physical, but he made several really nice plays getting underneath stuff that caused the quarterback to make bad throws. He continues to improve mentally and physically. He’s been gifted from day one.”
“Really, his man coverage,” junior cornerback Mike Hilton said of Conner’s improvement. “Most people thought he was a little too big to be going against shifty receivers. Not at all. He’s really gotten faster, actually. That’s the thing that stands out is his speed to be so big.”
Experience has helped, too, as defensive coordinator Dave Wommack will attest. How easily some forget Conner and his fellow classmates in the heralded crop of 2013 are only sophomores.
In football, they’ve barely scratched the surface of what they can become.
“All these guys, Robert (Nkemdiche) and all these guys, played for the first time last year. They know how to play the game (now) and put their eyes in the right place. They totally understand the defense inside and out,” Wommack said.
In Conner’s case, that includes coverage.
“More than anything in (coverage), he has,” improved, Wommack said. “And he’s gotten tougher and more physical.”
Move to wide receiver natural for Jones:
What a difference a year makes.
This time a year ago, the Ole Miss coaching staff was predicting great things for now-sophomore Derrick Jones. Wommack even went so far as to say Jones “was going to make a bunch of money someday” in the NFL as a cornerback.
Jones played in nine games with four starts, including an upset win over then-No. 6 LSU, as a freshman. He tallied 27 tackles with a tackle for loss and two pass breakouts en route to his first letter.
But after an underwhelming spring and fall camp, Jones was buried on the depth chart behind starters Hilton and Senquez Golson, as well as freshman Kendarius Webster and veteran Cliff Coleman. He didn’t see a snap against Boise State.
This week, with Ole Miss lacking in depth at the position, Jones was moved to wide receiver. A natural fit for the 6-foot-2, 182-pounder. All major recruiting services listed Jones, a former three-star prospect, as a receiver coming out of high school.
“Derrick can catch the ball in any area,” sophomore wide receiver Laquon Treadwell said. “I saw it day one. I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re going to be good, bro. I can help you with your routes and just teach you how to beat a defender off the line.’ He does it naturally. With a little help, he should be good.”
“He’s just such a good athlete,” quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator Dan Werner said. “He’s got good hands and he can really run. As offensive coaches, we wanted him there all along. When he wasn’t getting a whole lot of reps over on defense, it just worked out that we got him. Now we’ll get him in there wherever we can. Obviously it will be tough on him because he’s got to learn the whole scheme, all the signals and everything. But he knew a little bit from before just because he had played it a little bit. He’ll be ready to go. I can seem him getting 10-15 snaps.”
Ole Miss was hoping to get injured senior Collins Moore back for Vanderbilt. However, Moore, who suffered a knee injury in offseason workouts, needs more time.
Enter Jones, a former first team All-State receiver. He caught 44 passes for 975 yards and 15 touchdowns to help Eupora (Miss.) reach the Class 2A state title game as a senior.
“They’ve already got him running routes and starting with the ones in certain packages, so that’s pretty good,” Treadwell said. “I think it’s a good flip for him. I think he’ll be able to play more and help the team more at the receiver spot since we have so much depth at corner.”