September 14, 2018 10:09:14 AM
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The Alabama football team's new-look secondary is facing its biggest challenge yet. So, however, are the Mississippi receivers.
The top-ranked Crimson Tide's still inexperienced defensive backs are tasked with containing Rebels' quarterback Jordan Ta'amu, along with A.J. Brown and his fellow receivers Saturday night in Oxford, Mississippi.
Alabama's DBs have more than hold their own against Arkansas State and Louisville but Ole Miss has been producing yards and points galore so far -- also against weaker opposition. Whether the Tide can contain Brown, D.K. Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge will have a huge impact on the Rebels' chances for an upset.
"These are three NFL-caliber guys," Alabama safety Deionte Thompson said. "They stretch the field at any time and they have a good quarterback to go along with that trio so that's something we're going to have to be prepared for. We're going to have to do a very good job of preparing for them this week."
With a struggling defense, the Rebels' best chance is to engage the Tide in a shootout. But Alabama routed Ole Miss 66-3 last season and has also been prolific behind quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Now, the Tide faces an offense averaging 407.5 passing yards and 61.5 points. Alabama had to replace All-American Minkah Fitzpatrick and five other key defensive backs.
The inexperience hasn't been much of a problem so far.
Thompson has led the current group with a team-high 11 tackles and an interception. Shyheim Carter and Saivion Smith both have returned interceptions for touchdowns.
But they also haven't faced a group like Brown & Co. One of the nation's top receivers , Brown already has 15 catches for 251 yards and three touchdowns. Metcalf and Braylon Sanders both are flirting with 200 yards while Lodge had 96 receiving yards in the opener before missing the Southern Illinois game with a concussion. He's expected back in time for the Tide.
The stars haven't been alone in grabbing catches and attention. Alex Weber's only reception was a highlight-reel play against Southern Illinois, when he reached around to snare the ball against a defender's back.
"It was fun to see Elijah Moore get his first touchdown, and a guy like Alex Weber who has worked hard and been here a long time being the No. 1 play on SportsCenter on his first ever catch," Ole Miss coach Matt Luke said. "It's fun to see all their work ethic, because it's not just talent. Those guys work really hard and they push each other to be better and it's good to see.
"Obviously A.J., D.K. and Lodge get all the publicity, but some of the others getting some, that's really good."
Alabama has leaned on newcomers like Smith and freshman Patrick Surtain Jr., along with the emergence of returnees such as Thompson, Carter, Trevon Diggs and Xavier McKinney.
Alabama coach Nick Saban thinks his secondary has "made a lot of progress" and that the DBs have gained confidence. That will be put to the test Saturday night by the Rebels, though.
"They've got a great scheme on offense and they do a really good job of executing it," Saban said. "But I think the thing about their receivers, they're big, they're very physical and they've got really good speed outside. A.J. is a classic, big slot receiver who uses his body well and has great, strong hands and is difficult to cover.
"The combination of guys that they have, I think, is particularly good."
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