Derrick Jones can help a depleted Ole Miss cornerbacks stable
Derrick Jones has had an interesting go of it in his Ole Miss career. The 6-foot-2, 188-pound Jones signed with the Rebels in the class of 2013 as a wide receiver, but he was quickly shifted to cornerback. Some on the coaching staff raved of his potential there, of how he could have an NFL future. However, the move didn’t stick. He transitioned back to wide receiver, but his contributions remained minimal at best. Prior to Saturday, Jones, a senior, had five total career starts, 175 yards on 11 receptions (120 of those yards came in 2015) and 33 total tackles.
Jones was suspended for the first three games of 2016 due to what head coach Hugh Freeze deemed as a “violation of team standards.” It’s appropriate, then, that it was Jones who notched Ole Miss’ first interception of the season in his first game action. Jones is a cornerback again only because the team needs depth after a season-ending injury to starter Ken Webster. Webster suffered a messy knee injury in the season-opening loss to Florida State. And while Jones didn’t start against Georgia, he subbed in in place of senior starter Carlos Davis for the Bulldogs’ second offensive series and proceeded to intercept Georgia freshman quarterback Jacob Eason. He took the theft 57 yards to the end zone for a touchdown.
Maybe he has a future at cornerback after all. His emergence would certainly be a big boost, especially if Ole Miss is forced to be without Davis for any extended period of time. Davis went down in the second quarter after he was kneed in the head by teammate Myles Hartsfield while attempting a tackle. He was held out the remainder of the game.
“I think all of us enjoy a redemption story,” Freeze said. “All of us have made mistakes. He’s certainly been in his payment plan to get back reinstated to this team for a long time. I love him. Really, really proud to see him get back with us, and to see him make a play was really nice.”
Will Detric Bing-Dukes provide stability?
Musical chairs doesn’t have anything on the Ole Miss starting linebackers. There’s been no shortage of shuffling through three games, with myriad players producing inconsistent results, to say the least. Demarquis Gates has stood as the lone constant. The junior entered play second on the team with 21 tackles. He totaled a team-high nine in the win.
So it had to be nice to see transfer linebacker Detric Bing-Dukes play well in a surprise start. He collected seven tackles — good for second among all Rebels — and spearheaded a first-half effort that saw the Rebels race out to a 31-0 lead by halftime. The decision to roll with Bing-Dukes makes sense on the surface, even before hearing Freeze’s thoughts on the matter. Physically, Bing-Dukes is the prototype of an old-school, run-stopping linebacker, the kind not often seen in college football these days due to the prevalence of up-tempo offenses. Georgia, though, is run-oriented, with a passing approach predicated on play-action. The Bulldogs often implement traditional run concepts, leaning more heavily than most on traps and counters.
Suffice to say, a game plan well-suited for the talents of Bing-Dukes.
“I got sick of watching us not fit runs right,” Freeze said. “I said, ‘I’m not doing it another game. I didn’t care who it was. We were going to fit the dang run. Big-Dukes did the best in practice this week, so he got the start.”
Hey, look, Ole Miss held a first-half lead
Now four games into the season, Ole Miss is outscoring its opponents 107-33 in the first half. On Saturday, however, the Rebels did as they hadn’t done in two similar games — hold onto their lead and finish strong for a win.
In losses to Florida State and Alabama within the span of not even two weeks, the Rebels earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first Power Five team in 10 years to blow two 21-point leads in a season. Ole Miss-Georgia followed a similar script. Only this time, up 24-0 with over two minutes to go in the first half, Ole Miss pressed the issue. The Rebels marched 58 yards in five plays for a touchdown, capped by an impressive nine-yard throw-and-catch from quarterback Chad Kelly to tight end Evan Engram. They found the end zone again in the opening drive of the third quarter, going 70 yards in seven plays for a 38-0 advantage. Eugene Brazley punctuated the scoring march with a five-yard touchdown on a sweep.
National pundits won’t say as much, but Ole Miss ran over Alabama and Florida State in similar fashion, showing glimpses of its potential as one of the top teams in the nation. But disaster plays and lopsided turnover margins almost always result in a loss. Ole Miss played a clean game Saturday. In its two losses? The Rebels were minus-four in turnovers, and both of their miscues in their 48-43 loss to the Crimson Tide last week went for touchdowns. In all, Alabama produced 21 non-offensive points.
“We weren’t emotional all week,” Freeze said. “My gut is usually right. Usually. My gut was we had really good work but we were not emotional, no passion. My gut told me it was a great sign. They’re disappointed, they’re ticked. They’ll be ready to go.”
“I know everybody wants to make it out to be great strategy by the opposing coaches or by us, but the reality is if we don’t turn the ball over, we don’t talk about all those strategy things. That’s what happened to us in both of those games. It’s hard to overcome that against good teams. We really didn’t do anything different.”
Ground game improvement?
Running the football hasn’t come easy to Ole Miss this season. But the Rebels, who entered 112 out of 128 FBS teams in net rushing yards gained, found success against Georgia. They rushed for 180 yards and reached pay dirt twice. Four Rebels rushed for at least 30 yards, while Kelly led all rushers with 53 yards on four carries, including a long of 41 yards that went for one of this three total touchdowns.
Ole Miss is never going to have a consistently dominant running attack. Its offense, which leans heavily on run-pass options and moves quickly, will always be funneled through the air, especially considering the talent at Freeze’s disposal at wide receiver. Eight different receivers caught a pass Saturday. Engram hauled in a team-leading six on seven targets for 95 yards and a touchdown. But the Rebels have to show some semblance of balance, and now they're 31-3 under Freeze when they rush for at least 150 yards.
“I love running the football,” Freeze said. “It sets up our pass. You have to have the appearance that you’re going to run it. It’s tough. You don’t make judgements based on (small) sample sizes. But today we were efficient enough. It was enough that I knew that we were balanced and had the appearance, which makes our passing game better.”
Kelly breaks another record
Ole Miss goes as Kelly goes. He turned the ball over at least two times in each of the Rebels’ losing efforts, but when he’s at his best — as he was as he methodically dissected and destroyed Georgia — there are few, if any, in college football who are better.
Kelly was 18 of 24 for 282 yards and two touchdowns for a passer rating of 201.2. Ole Miss logged over 500 yards of total offense, and Kelly accounted for over 300 yards of it. The game marked the 17th in a row in which he’s thrown for a touchdown, passing a school record long held by all-time Ole Miss great Eli Manning.
“I was really pleased,” Freeze said. “I thought he was really solid. When he did use his feet, the ball was protected. I thought he was really, really solid today.”