Let’s face it – for the past four or five years, Ole Miss has been a little spoiled at the safety slots with the likes of Cody Prewitt, Trae Elston, Mike Hilton, et al, doing the bulk of the work.
This year, the Rover and free safety slots take on a somewhat new look with two true freshmen – Myles Hartsfield and Deontay Anderson – holding down the Rover slot and sophomore Zedrick “Red” Woods and junior C.J. Hampton apparently getting the bulk of the free safety reps.
Woods understands the challenge of being the heir to Prewitt, Elston and Hilton.
“Those guys were great players and it will be tough to replace them. They were all great tacklers and it will be tough to take their places, but we have to step up as a unit,” Woods noted. “I think we are prepared to do that.
“Throughout fall camp, we have progressed. Everyone in the safety room got better. In our minds, we feel we were going to be the strongest group on the team because everyone has come in with great focus and with the mindset of getting better every day. Now, we just have to go out and prove it.”
Zedrick, known affectionately as Red, isn’t satisfied, but he believes the back end of the defense as a whole has come a long way.
“There is always room for improvement. We are always trying to get better,” he explained. “But we have gotten more consistent and we are giving everything we have for the team.
“Camp is going good. I think we got better as a unit and as a team this camp and we have more time to get even better. I’m comfortable. I feel I have progressed in learning the defense. It’s all a good fit for me.”
His experience last year as a true freshman as the nickel and dime back, depending on the defensive call, helped him last spring and this fall camp.
“I knew what to expect and already knew a good bit of the defense,” Woods explained. “It’s just a matter of being consistent, which I think goes for the whole defense. If we will get a little more consistent, I think we are going to be one of the most dominant defenses in the nation.
“Already this camp, we have eliminated a lot of the explosive plays we were giving up in spring and that is huge improvement to me.”
The biggest hurdle for young safeties is the communication aspect. They have to make the checks and secondary calls, something that takes time to learn.
“Communication has been a huge emphasis in our room with Coach (Corey) Batoon. I feel we’ve gotten a lot better at it,” Red noted. “I’m comfortable making calls and checks now. Everything is falling into place for me and for Myles and everyone in our room.”
Woods, who said he is stronger and in better condition this year than last year as a rookie, has a lot of faith in Hartsfield, Anderson and Hampton.
“Myles comes to work every day. His mindset is to get better every day and that’s what he has done, but I can say that for everyone in the safety room,” he added. “It helps to have veterans like C.J. and Tony (Conner) in there.”
Being from Florida, Woods cannot wait for the opener in Orlando against Florida State.
“My family was always for the Seminoles, but I always liked the Gators. God put me at Ole Miss though and I couldn’t be happier,” he closed. “It’s going to be a lot of fun playing there with nice weather, a nice stadium and at home. I can’t wait.”
There is a lot riding on the shoulders of Zedrick Woods – taking over for a group of graduated safeties that left a big mark on the Rebel program.
Is he next in line to carry on that tradition of excellence? He believes so, and that’s half the battle.