Hugh Freeze confirmed Robert Nkemdiche expected to play at Auburn

Robert Nkemdiche will suit up and play at Auburn on Saturday.

That is, if things continue down their current path.

Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said Wednesday Nkemdiche, who suffered a concussion in the Rebels’ loss to Memphis two weeks ago, is symptom free and has practiced with the team all week. Safety Tony Conner has practiced some, too, including 12 snaps Tuesday, but his status is day-to-day. Conner was dealt a torn meniscus against Alabama, a 43-37 Rebel win.

“Rob’s been acclimated, he’s just got to be symptom free, which he is right now,” Freeze said. “Everything looks good with him. Tony is just how is he progressing? He’s been out a while. I think he got 12 snaps yesterday. I don’t know how many today, but we’ll kind of see how he goes throughout the week and how much swelling there is and all the things the docs have to look at to judge him. His is day-to-day.

“Rob’s cleared to go. As long as he doesn’t have anymore symptoms, he’s looked good both days of practice. He’s ready to go.”

Because Ole Miss is on the road this week, the staff will have to make a call regarding Conner relatively soon. Freeze said he expects a decision to come tomorrow on the preseason All-American, who’s started all three games he’s appeared in this season. He’s totaled 10 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss.

“We’ll come up against a time where we have to decide,” Freeze said. “Not sure when that is yet. We’ll talk about how practice went today and how we moved around and how he feels. You can only travel 70. It’ll probably be sometime tomorrow. He’s got an issue that’s going to have to be dealt with. It’s just a matter of how much he can tolerate and how aggravated it gets when he does play. He’s definitely close to trying it. We’ll see from there. Whether it’s this week or next week I don’t know yet.”

Senior Mike Hilton replaced Conner at his hybrid linebacker/safety “husky” position after opening the year as the team’s starting strong safety. Sophomore C.J. Hampton, in turn, stepped in at free safety, sliding senior Trae Elston over to free.

While Memphis was forgettable, the Rebels had one of their best all-around defensive efforts in a 23-3 win over Texas A&M, holding the Aggies to 192 total yards, the fewest by an opponent this year and the fewest Ole Miss has allowed an opponent since limiting Presbyterian to 156 a year ago. 

“Mike’s a football player. He’s been the best replacement on this team we can find for Tony, for sure,” Freeze said. “Would like to have both of them out there. We’ve had one good game, so I’m hesitant to jump the gun. We’ve got to build upon that success and get better.”

Ole Miss (6-2, 3-1 SEC) and Auburn (4-3, 1-3) are set for an 11 a.m. kickoff on the Plains.  This is the 40th meeting all-time between the teams dating back to 1928. Auburn leads the series 29-10, with a 14-2 mark in Auburn. 

“Good week,” Freeze said. “We had two really days. Hate that we didn’t get outside some. We’ve been blessed with great weather, and we have so much room when we go outside. Everything just feels a little congested the last couple of days. I don’t watch the weather, but we did some wet-ball drills and some things earlier today in case we face that. It’s two good days. Like what I see.”

The Tigers feature a balanced offensive attack, led by sophomore running back Peyton Barber. Barber ranks sixth in the SEC with 110.0 rushing yards per game. He’s third with 12 touchdowns.

“Typically they’ve been one of the best rushing teams you’ll ever face,” Freeze said. “They’ve kind of gotten that identity back. I thought they did a really nice job the last few weeks of rushing the football. Having said that, their quarterback’s been extremely accurate. He’s thrown it really well, taken care of it and put it to the right spots. They’re balanced enough that you’ve got to defend both. Their pass plays, Auburn’s got some that are explosive because of the way they smoke-and-mirror you with all their runs and run a wheel route, a post route or double move. He’s got some good stuff. And they get you in some one-on-ones.”

The Auburn defense is giving up a league-worst 29.7 points per outing and allowing a league-worst 430.6 yards per game. However, the struggling unit could get a boost through the return of star defensive end Carl Lawson. Lawson, who’s been injured, was back at practice this week and is questionable for the game.

“There’s no question that he’s a phenomenal player,” Freeze said. “I went back and watched two years ago when we played them, and he was a force then as a freshman. I’ve heard their coaching staff say how much of a leader he is. There’s no doubt he’s going to give them a boost being back with them.”

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