OXFORD — The University of Mississippi football team’s come-from-behind victory against Vanderbilt University in last week’s Southeastern Conference opener was a thrilling start to Hugh Freeze’s second season as the Rebels’ head coach.
It also came with considerable cost.
Ole Miss (1-0) lost two starters to injury — offensive guard Aaron Morris and linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche — and now must figure out how to plug those holes as it prepares to face Southeast Missouri (0-1) on Saturday.
Morris is out for the season with a torn ACL in his left knee while Nkemdiche will be out for 4-6 weeks after having surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee.
Freeze said both will be missed, but believes there are other players ready to step up.
Though there was bad news with injuries, the good news was several of the Rebels’ highly regarded freshmen showed their ability in the Vanderbilt game — including offensive linemen Laremy Tunsil and Austin Golson.
Morris’ injury means Tunsil and Golson will likely see added snaps. Freeze also said veterans like Patrick Junen, Jared Duke and Justin Bell will help fill the void.
Quarterback Bo Wallace had a good game against Vanderbilt, completing 31 of 47 passes for 283 yards. Maybe most importantly, he threw no interceptions. Turnovers were a problem at times last season.
Wallace credited a rapidly improving offensive line with giving him time to survey the field. He said Morris’ injury hurts, but is confident he’ll still have time to find his receivers.
The Rebels gave up four sacks to Vanderbilt in the first half, but none after halftime.
“I think it’s good,” Wallace said. “I trust all those guys — the younger guys. Laremy had a great game and Austin is going to come in and do really well. I trust those guys. It’s unfortunate that Aaron (Morris) is going to miss time, but we’ll be OK.”
The loss of Nkemdiche might be a bigger blow for the Rebels. Not only did he lead the team with 82 tackles last season, but he was also one of the team’s emotional leaders who latched onto Freeze’s system early and helped Ole Miss make a bowl game.
Juniors Keith Lewis and Serderius Bryant are Nkemdiche’s replacements.
“It’s a loss of leadership, the loss of a very bright individual,” Lewis said. “But we have that in me and (Bryant). Combined, we can make up for it.”
The Ole Miss defense had an uneven performance against Vanderbilt, coming up with some big plays, but also giving up 35 points and 426 yards of total offense. The Rebels also had a crucial breakdown in coverage late in the game that allowed the Commodores to score an easy touchdown.
Freeze said Vanderbilt “threw some things at us that we hadn’t seen,” and added that the defense’s youth showed with multiple missed assignments.
“We’re blessed to have not played our best, but still find a way to win,” Freeze said.
Ole Miss gets to tinker with both sides of the ball this week while preparing for Southeast Missouri, which plays in the lower-level Football Championship Subdivision.
The Rebels inched closer to making the Top 25 poll after the Vanderbilt win, earning 50 points to finish two spots out of the rankings. But the rise gets tougher as the Ole Miss roster gets banged up.
“We are certainly still thin at spots,” Freeze said. “So hopefully we won’t have to experience this every week.”