The Crimson Tide welcome the Ole Miss Rebels to Tuscaloosa this Saturday night and one of the nation’s best receiving cores comes with them. Fans in Oxford have made a case the nickname “Wide Receiver U” and you can’t blame them. With the amount of returning starters and young talent that the Rebels had entering the season, there was a lot to be excited about. They have performed just as well as they were expected to in games against UT-Martin and Fresno State but the two blowout wins had limited opportunities for the stars of the passing game to shine. Alabama’s defensive backs have looked tremendous over the first two games and are starting to answer some of the questions that faced the pass defense coming into the season. Senior Cyrus Jones leads a young secondary up against a deep and talented receiving group lead by Laquon Treadwell.
Ole Miss Receivers
Treadwell has caught the most passes this season for the Rebels, totaling 117 yards on just nine catches so far this season. However, the junior’s 13.0 yards per reception is last on the team among players with more than one catch. Senior Cody Core leads the team in receiving yards after a monster game against Fresno State. Core has just eight catches on the season but has gone for 176 yards and two touchdowns. The former Auburn High School star looks like the go-to guy while Treadwell continues his recovery from a leg injury. Those two combined for 93 yards on eight catches in last season’s upset win over the Crimson Tide and look to once again lead the offense in a big victory for the Rebels.
A major factor in the upset last season was tight end Evan Engram. The 6’3″, 227 pound junior caught just three passes against the Alabama defense but all three went for first downs, including a 50-yard reception that shifted momentum and lead to a 20-3 run by the Rebels. Engram has only caught one pass so far this season but can still have a big impact in this game and throughout the season if Chad Kelly can find a way to get him the ball.
Unfortunately for Alabama, those three are not the only weapons that Hugh Freeze will use on the outside against the Tide. Sophomore Quincy Adeboyejo has been blowing by defenses, catching eight passes for 155 yards and four touchdowns. He ran an unofficial 4.3 40-yard dash at summer camp and has used that speed to score every other time he touches the ball. Alabama’s safeties may have their hands full with him. Fellow sophomores Damore’e Stringfellow and Markell Pack round out the top targets for the Rebels. The two have combined for 154 yards and a touchdown on nine catches so far this season. So Chad Kelly’s top five receivers average more than 17 yards per reception this season and will look to keep that up in Tuscaloosa on Saturday.
They seem to be the biggest talking point of every season, but through two games, the Alabama secondary has shown that they could be good enough to cover anybody. This week may be the season’s toughest test but Cyrus Jones and Co. are up to the challenge. As a group, they have two interceptions so far this season to go along with five pass deflections and two fumble recoveries. They get after the ball and they could be the difference makers in this game.
However, the challenge is a big one and the returning starters didn’t fare too well in the game against the Rebels last season. Jones and starting safety Geno Smith were the only two to play in the loss at Oxford 3.5 tackles and one pass deflection. Jones did have a fumble returned for a touchdown just before halftime but it may have only been because of a facemask penalty that wasn’t called. Jones has shown major improvement but he can’t handle all the receivers by himself. He will likely see most of his playing time against Treadwell but could shift to Core depending on how much Treadwell can play.
Marlon Humphrey will once again get the start at the number two cornerback and will have to be able to cover guys like Core and Adeboyejo to help the secondary shut down the passing game. Humphrey’s speed should help against some of the deep balls but his ability to find the ball in the air will need to improve to avoid pass interference calls on those throws. True freshman Minkah Fitzpatrick has shown good signs in his first two games. He has often been able to be used on the blitz and in zone coverage but Saturday may be different. Fitzpatrick could see some man coverage against guys like Evan Engram or a hand-full of different slot receivers for Ole Miss. He already has two pass deflections on the season and will be trusted in most of these one-one-one situations.
Eddie Jackson joins Smith as the starting safeties and will look to keep up the strong performances that the pass defense has had. Kirby Smart and the Crimson Tide do not want to get beat by the long ball and that is why there are often a lot of gaps in the coverage between the linebackers and safeties. The Rebels like to go deep often so don’t expect that strategy to change this weekend. Discipline and communication will be key to make sure both safeties stay in the right positions to keep every pass in front of them. If they don’t miss any tackles, it will force the Rebels to score within the redzone and not allow them to get anything quick over the top.
ADVANTAGE: Ole Miss
Caleb Turrentine is a contributor at Touchdown Alabama Magazine. Follow him on Twitter, @CalebTurrentine.