Watch the skies: Reworked secondary will get its biggest test today

Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch gets sacked last season in Oxford. He's a much better quarterback than the one whose Tigers lost 24-3 to the Rebels last year. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

By Parrish Alford

Daily Journal

MEMPHIS – After Florida hurt Ole Miss with crossing routes and underneath passing the Rebels responded with a secondary shakeup the following week.

Seniors Mike Hilton and Trae Elston moved to nickel back and strong safety, and sophomore C.J. Hampton was inserted into the lineup at free safety.

The first go-round got good reviews, but the opponent left something to be desired in struggling New Mexico State.

Today is different.

• Today's game: at Memphis, 11 a.m. (ABC)

Memphis comes in averaging 47.8 points and 541.2 yards when the two teams kick off at 11 a.m. at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

“They present all types of challenges,” Hilton said. “Everybody has to be on their A game. None of their guys lack skill. They all can make plays out of the backfield and on edges.”

The Tigers have won 12 straight, having lost just once since falling to Ole Miss 24-3 in Oxford last year.

Ole Miss smothered the Tigers then, holding them to 104 total yards.

Not the same

This is a different Ole Miss defense, less dominant than last year’s version that led the nation with just 16.0 points per game allowed.

Memphis is different too, and it shows in the experience level of quarterback Paxton Lynch.

“He’s more mature. I think he understands what they’re doing better. He has more experience. He has a thousand more game reps than he had a year ago. I think we played them late September, and (now) he just seems in control,” Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said.

Lynch, much like Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly, is spreading the ball around to a lot of different backs and receivers.

Memphis and Ole Miss both have at least four backs with 150 rushing yards. Both teams also have at least five players with 10 catches who average more than 13 yards per catch.

Ole Miss remains without the services of nickel back Tony Conner, a projected first-round pick, and coach Hugh Freeze earlier this week was not optimistic that Conner would return soon.

Wommack says his unit has cut down on big plays allowed. Players are confident that improvement will continue.

“We all miss Tony, but all five of us mesh pretty well back there,” Hilton said. “We are not worried about where we stand, and with the guys we have, we can still match what we did last year. We have guys who are hungry to make plays and make sure we are still one of the top defenses in the country.”

Twitter: @parrishalford

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