- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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As Texas A&M approaches its next game, a road trip to Oxford, Miss., to take on Southeastern Conference foe Mississippi, GigEmNation sought insight on the 3-2 Rebels from Hugh Kellenberger, who covers the team for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.
Sam Khan Jr.: When it comes to Ole Miss' defense, which is closer to a more accurate representation of what they are: the Sept. 15 loss to Texas when the Longhorns scored 66 or last week when they allowed just 33 points -- and six in the second half -- to no. 1 Alabama?
Hugh Kellenberger: I don’t know if either was truly more accurate of Ole Miss’ defensive talent, because Texas and Alabama approached their games against Ole Miss so different. Texas was very aggressive with its outside run and threw the ball vertically. That exposed Ole Miss’ lack of speed in the front six and the corners simply could not make plays on the ball. Ole Miss abandoned the 4-2-5 defense in favor of a 4-3 look against Alabama, and it was more successful in bottling up Bama’s running game. What Ole Miss did do well at times is on third down using a 3-2-6 look that put defensive backs across the field to attack the receiver. That used Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron’s love of the check down and underneath route against him, because those four and five yards receptions did not get much after the catch.
For this week, I expect a return to the 4-2-5 as the team’s base, but the 4-3 was effective enough we may see it on first down and third-and-short situations.
SK: The Rebels are in the top 25 nationally when it comes to running the football. What has been the key to that success?
HK: The read-option game has been a big success for Ole Miss, because both quarterbacks are comfortable taking the ball and getting yardage up field. That forces the defense to play both ends, and often not very well. Ole Miss also has four backs that will get carries, and their different styles have helped to diversify play-calling and further keep teams off-balance. But that number is also misleading, because it was garnered against teams with really bad run defense. Look at the first three games this season against FBS opponents; the best run defense was Texas, which is 89th nationally. UTEP is 108 and Tulane is 122nd. Against Alabama, Ole Miss had 80 yards on 35 carries. It’s not going to be that bad much, if at all, the rest of this season, because no one runs against Bama. But I also don’t know how many times Ole Miss can run for 300 yards or more this season, which it did against UTEP and Tulane.
SK: What have been their strengths and what have they struggled with the most through five games?
HK: After last season, in which the team clearly packed it in and called it a day with a month to go (I watch Arkansas this season and think, “Hey, I’ve seen that movie.”), the biggest strength has just been Ole Miss’ fight and resiliency. It didn’t let the bottom fall out after a 35-point loss to Texas, shut out Tulane and then, in a lot of ways, shocked Alabama with its physicality last Saturday. That doesn’t happen often, and no one saw it coming. The offensive scheme has led to a lot of yards and points, as well. The biggest weakness is that the team should be scoring more points, but is turning the ball over way too much. It’s 13 in five games, with three each in the last four. On Saturday three interceptions in the span of two minutes led to 14 Alabama points. Suddenly a 13-7 game is 27-7 at halftime. You can’t do that against Alabama.
SK: Give me a name of a player that Texas A&M fans might not know now, but will by the end of Saturday's game.
HK: I would have said linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, but winning SEC co-defensive player of the week probably put him on people’s radar heading into this game. He’s really good, though, especially for a safety (he’s 5-foot-11 and 203 pounds) playing linebacker. In lieu of him, I’ll go with Cody Prewitt. He led Ole Miss with 13 tackles last weekend, and had a lot of the third-down stops I mentioned earlier. Prewitt, who plays safety, is a sophomore that two years ago was playing academy (in other words, small private schools) ball in Mississippi. Houston Nutt threw him onto the field last year before he was ready, but he had a fantastic August and has been a positive in the back end for Ole Miss.
SK: What's your assessment of how Hugh Freeze has faired so far in his first season in Oxford?
HK: It’s gone about as well as it possibly could have. The hire was an eyebrow-raiser, because we are talking about a guy who eight years ago was coaching football and girls’ basketball at a small private high school in Memphis. He’s won everywhere he’s been, but that was Lambuth (a NAIA school that no longer exists because of accreditation issues) and Arkansas State. Now he’s in the SEC? But people I talked to after the hire insisted Freeze would, in addition to working scheme and developing talent, motivate this team. He has, and he’s been exactly what this team needed after all the chaos of 2011 and the years before that. Guys are just playing harder, in practice and on gameday. That’s all him.
2dJeremy Crabtree and Brandon Chatmon