The Rebels lost first team All-American Senquez Golson, who was later drafted in the second round by the Pittsburgh Steelers, to graduation last season. Mike Hilton, who led Ole Miss in tackles, shifted to safety in the spring to replace Cody Prewitt.
Enter Tee Shepard and Tony Bridges, a pair of former five-star prospects. Shepard was rated the No. 7 overall junior college prospect by Scout.com when he signed with Ole Miss in 2014. Bridges, who Scout ranked as the top junior college cornerback in his class, enrolled at Ole Miss in January.
“We’re fortunate. We’re happy to have Tony and Tee,” Ole Miss cornerbacks coach Jason Jones said. “Before Tee got hurt (last August), he was having a great camp - doing all the little things, physical. He was starting to catch on, learn the defense and he had a good spring. And we’re pleased with Tee and where he’s come. He’s been working hard in the summer; I’m looking forward to getting him out there in fall camp and seeing him go.
“Tony Bridges has done a great job with the transition. Got here in January, and he’s been working hard. Worked hard this spring and really worked his way up the depth chart. Talking to (Ole Miss strength and conditioning) coach (Paul) Jackson and the strength staff, he’s one of those young men that doesn’t just want to be good, he wants to be great. Those are the guys we’re looking for. Our theme is chasing greatness. He works his tail off, does the little things. So I’m excited to be able to have him out there in August.”
Shepard has arguably the highest upside of the two. Actually, prior to suffering his season-ending toe injury a year ago August, he was locked in a close competition with Golson. He could have very well been the starter.
“He has a huge upside,” Jones said. “When we got Tee, strength-wise, coach Jackson did his evaluation on him and he was really weak - upper body, lower body. He’d never really had to train in the weight room and stuff like that. So he’d been playing just on raw athletic ability. He hurt the toe last year, but being able to spend that full year in the weight room with coach Jackson has changed his game. It’s allowed him to be more physical. He can handle the bigger wideouts and things like that.
“The other thing is Tee has the hearing disability. But it almost helps him because he’s so detailed and he does exactly what you tell him to do. Of course he makes mistakes from time to time, but because of his hearing he has to focus. He has to have his eyes in the right place and focus on the right things. He doesn’t look at all the extra stuff that some of the other guys look at. That also helps him, and that’s going to be a big upside for him.”
Jones said Shepard is free to wear the hearing aids all the time, including practices and games.
“They’re athletic hearing aids,” he said. “The good thing about them is we had the opportunity to go through them this spring and have trial and error and work through some kinks. Since this spring, he hasn’t had any problems.”
The cornerback depth chart extends beyond Shepard and Bridges. Jones has high expectations for sophomore Kendarius Webster as well. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Webster played in every game, with one start, last season.
“I’m excited to see him,” Jones said. “Coming into the spring, during all the testing, he had the fastest 40 (yard dash) of all the skill guys. He ran like a 4.35. He played last year, but really he played with one arm ‘cause he got cleared right before the opening game. Had shoulder surgery coming out of high school. I’m excited to see him have full strength in both of his shoulders and his upper body. He’s really been working hard in the offseason. Between those three guys, I think they’ll be able to provide the depth that we need to sustain and play at a high level through the conference.”
The wildcard of the group is junior Kailo Moore. Moore was utilized primarily as a running back as a freshman in 2013. He made the switch as a sophomore, appearing in all 13 games on special teams and as a reserve in the secondary. He collected five tackles and a fumble recovery.
Jones expects to see marked improvement from Moore for a number reasons, not the least of which being Moore is now focused solely on football. He’s no longer a member of the Ole Miss track and field team - no small sacrifice considering he advanced to the NCAA Outdoor Championships in the 4x100-meter relay in 2014.
“He’s had his ups and downs,” Jones said. “But what he’s done is when the season ended, he decided he wasn’t going to run track anymore, he was just going to focus on football. We’re fortunate where I had him the entire spring. A year ago when he was running track, he would miss some practices because of a track meet. Kailo is really fast, and when the summer would roll around, he’d even miss some of the weight room workouts because he was still running track up until the middle part of June. But he gave up track and it’s been just football.
“From talking with the strength staff, he’s another guy that they’ve said has come light years. He’s starting to get a feel for the position, and he’s been working extra on his own with Tony Bridges and Mike Hilton and Kendarius Webster. They’ve been doing things on their own. He’s a guy that we’re definitely looking forward to helping us. I like to play four guys just so guys can stay fresh. I’m looking forward to him being that fourth guy that we can roll in there.”
Jones believes Moore could very well be the difference in pushing an already impressive Ole Miss defense into the category of “special.”
“The one guy going into fall camp that we really need on defense to make this a special defense is Kailo. Kailo would give us that depth that we need,” he said. “He has the speed, it was just a matter of going through that learning curve last year of trying to learn the position. If he’s been working the way the guys say he has been and it carries over onto the field, he’s a guy that we really need and we’re hoping he’s going to help us out a whole lot this year.”
Another player sure to factor into the mix is true freshman Cameron Ordway, a four-star signee.
“Cam was a highly-recruited kid. Just from talking to the strength staff, out of the freshman DBs, he’s the one that has a chance to help us,” Jones said. “Of course you’d like to redshirt those guys and give them a year in the weight room and things like that, but he’s a guy that the strength staff believes is the closest to helping us if we needed someone. As far as his athletic ability and foot work, he’s doing great.”
The season is fast-approaching. Plenty could change between now and when the Rebels kick off against UT-Martin at 11 a.m. CT Sept. 5. But however it plays out for the cornerbacks, Jones is pleased with what he has, and the offseason progress reports have been encouraging.
“They’ve had good attitudes, and they’re competing against one another,” he said. “One guy may be in the weight room and have a certain amount of weight on the bar, and the other guy looks at him and tells coach Jackson, ‘Hey, put that weight on my bar.’ They’re competing against each other, which is good. They’ve been working hard, so I’m pleased with them.”