Wilkins returns to Memphis to face hometown Tigers

Ole Miss running back Jordan Wilkins can barely hide his excitement this week.

The Rebels will face off against his hometown Memphis Tigers Saturday at 11 a.m. on ABC. Wilkins, from Cordova, Tenn., said he knows “pretty much everybody” on the Memphis roster, including wide receiver Sam Craft and walk-on tight end and former high school teammate Joey Magnifico. 

Not to mention his girlfriend is a Tiger cheerleader. Safe to say the game carries added significance for him.

“Last year this one of most exciting games we had all year,” Wilkins said of the 24-3 Rebel win. “There was a lot trash talk. I don't want to get into all that. We heard them chanting ‘We want Ole Miss’ after the Cincinnati game. That fired me up a little bit, so I'm excited. I heard it on TV, saw all the tweets, people tagging me. 

“I don't get into all the trash talk. We handle our business on the field, they played us well last year. Their offense is better this year, but if we take care of our business we should be fine. I know I’m not taking them lightly. Some people are really hyped up. I think we’re growing as a team. We know every game is important, and this is the next step.”

Wilkins has been around Memphis football all his life. Saturday is unique in that it will mark the first time the Tigers have played a nationally-ranked opponent while also being nationally ranked.

Even more, the game will be the first time Ole Miss (5-1, 2-1 SEC) will play a nationally-ranked Memphis (5-0, 2-0 AAC) team. The Rebels enter ranked No. 12 in the coaches’ poll compared to No. 22 for the Tigers, who have won 12 straight games, the third-longest winning streak in FBS football.

“I’ve never heard of it before, Memphis being that good,” Wilkins said. “But (Memphis head coach Justin) Fuente is doing a great job and Memphis is a great team. We can’t take them lightly. This is a big game for us.”

Wilkins is a former four-star prospect and three-time Division 2-AA All-State selection. However, he never really heard from Memphis during his recruitment process in 2013. Wilkins said the then-Tiger coaching staff thought he was headed to the SEC. 

Turns out they were right, and now in his sophomore season, Wilkins is third on the team with 199 yards. He’s played in all six games for the Rebels, with one start, and he’s scored two touchdowns. He’s compiled 560 total rushing yards in his career.

“I was interested in them because I thought it’d have been cool to play for the hometown team,” he said. “But I kind of set my eyes on playing SEC football. We’ve just got to keep our composure and not let the moment beat us. Play every play, take the yards that are there, take care of the ball and the big play will happen.”

Ole Miss could be in for an offensive shootout. The game features the No. 4 (Memphis, at 47.8 ppg) and No. 5 (Ole Miss at 46.8 ppg) scoring offenses in the country. Wilkins said ball protection is key for an Ole Miss win.

“The main thing is taking care of the ball,” he said. “We can't have negative plays; that really hurt at Florida. Once we take care of the ball, we can move the ball and stay on schedule and we'll be fine.

“I don't think they're as physical (on defense) as they were last year. They're still a really good defense. I think our offensive line is doing a better job working week-to-week to get better and open more holes. We're just going to keep improving on that.”

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