The injury report is that extensive.
The Rebel offensive line has been hit the hardest. Freeze said center Robert Conyers and guards Javon Patterson and Justin Bell are out for New Mexico State, as are wide receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow, cornerback Kailo Moore and running back Jaylen Walton.
Linebacker C.J. Johnson recently underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus. He’s out 4-6 weeks, joining safety Tony Conner, who had the same injury and subsequent surgery. Running back Eric Swinney (stress fracture) and defensive tackles Issac Gross (neck) and Herbert Moore (ACL) are out for the year.
“We’ve obviously got some injuries right now,” Freeze said. “The testing times give great opportunity for our coaches and our players. We’ve had two really good practices, so I’m excited to get back out there Saturday.”
With Patterson, Conyers and Bell, as well as the still-unresolved status of Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss could be without four of its listed starting five offensive linemen this weekend. Redshirt freshman Sean Rawlings has started all five games at right tackle, and while listed as questionable this week, he’ll give it a go.
Freeze said he’s most concerned about Conyers
“Robert would probably be the biggest,” he said. “Conyers, that knee, he’s had his troubles with it. He’s a tough dude. He’ll go as much as he can.”
Sophomore Rod Taylor was projected to start at right guard this season. However, he was sidelined in August after he suffered a torn labrum in his shoulder during an unauthorized boxing match. He’s played in a handful of games so far, and he’s slated to start against New Mexico State.
And any talk of a medical redshirt for Taylor can be put to rest.
“He’s going to play. He’s going to start. He’s going to go,” Freeze said. “He’s had a good week. He was the best guy we had out there (against Florida), he and Fahn (Cooper). He did really well in his run game assignments. Still a little tentative when he has to get outside the frame of his body some, but he’s feeling better every week.”
Johnson, a preseason All-SEC selection, will be replaced at MIKE linebacker by junior college transfer Terry Caldwell. Caldwell has appeared in all five games, registering eight total tackles and a forced fumble.
“Love his effort. Love the way he runs to the ball,” Freeze said. “He’s got to be a little more vocal. He’s a really quiet, reserved kid to begin with. He’s got to get us lined up quickly. That’s his biggest challenge. He had a good day (Tuesday). He and Christian (Russell) and Temario (Strong) are our three MIKEs right now. Terry’s going to get the starting job this Saturday and see how he does. We’ve had him in on third downs anyway some. On early downs when they throw, he is more athletic and probably covers a little bit better than C.J.”
Ole Miss announced the departure of junior cornerback Tee Shepard from the football team earlier in the day. Though Shepard is quitting football, he’ll remain at Ole Miss to complete his degree.
Freeze said the university will honor Shepard’s one-year scholarship. Shepard has nine hours to complete to graduate in the spring.
“He went back and forth a couple of days,” he said. “I probably could’ve convinced him to stay with it. But I really wanted him and his family … his heart really wasn’t in the grind that this presents to you right now. He’s had to overcome a lot of injuries. We love Tee. We’ll continue to support him as he gets his degree.”
With Shepard gone and Moore in the training room, Ole Miss’ once-strong cornerback depth has quickly evaporated. Veteran Carlos Davis is around, as is true freshman Cam Ordway, long considered a redshirt candidate. He’s run with the second team defense in practices.
Whether or not he plays, though, remains to be seen.
“He’ll be prepared to play,” Freeze said. “We’ll probably make that decision Friday.”
Whoever is on the field, offensively or defensively, they’ll be expected to improve Ole Miss’ porous third-down numbers. Statistically, Ole Miss is pretty much even with its 2014 numbers across the board. That is, outside of its lack of success on third down.
“We’re bad on third downs on both sides,” Freeze said. “That affects both sides. We’re not getting the ball back with more possessions, and we’re not staying on the field and causing our defense to play too many snaps. It’s a combination, and we’re working extremely hard on it this week. I expect to see improvement.
“We watched all 37 or so third downs (from Florida) and really felt like we should have converted 31 of the 37. But we didn’t. We’re either not getting it communicated correctly, or we’re not executing it correctly. We’ve got to keep working and getting it improved.”