NOTEBOOK: Rebels’ secondary shuffles after struggles

Published 12:00 pm Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Ole Miss secondary has struggled in the absence of Tony Conner the past two weeks, and head coach Hugh Freeze has seen enough.

Changes are coming.

Freeze announced during his weekly press conference Monday that Mike Hilton will be moving back to Huskie to replace A.J. Moore, who has not adjusted to the position as quickly as Freeze would have like and struggled against Vanderbilt and Florida.

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“We do miss (Conner),” Freeze said. “We’ve struggled at the Huskie position the last couple of weeks. Not for lack of effort. Just not having the experience Tony did or the tackling skills or the physicality. We’ve struggled there a couple times.”

The move took place Sunday when the team met to go over the Florida game film. Hilton will remain at Huskie until Conner returns. He has played at Huskie before, so the adjustment will not be too difficult for the senior.

“(The coaches) are trying to get the best players on the field,” Hilton said. “They were counting on A.J., but they still feel like he has some work to do.”

Hilton’s move creates a domino effect in the secondary as Trae Elston will move from free safety to rover, and C.J. Hampton will become the free safety for the foreseeable future.

“You do whatever to help the team, and that’s what I’m going to do,” Elston said. “We’ll just have to see how it goes. … It’s not that big of a move. I feel like I’ve been playing rover for three years, so that’s nothing new to me.”

Freeze gave an update on Conner’s status, stating he will be allowed to begin active rehab on Wednesday, which is the two-week mark post-surgery after tearing the meniscus in his right knee against Alabama.

A timetable for his return is not able to be determined until they see how Conner responds to the rehab process.

“It’s kind of hard for me to say right now,” Freeze said. “(Conner) looks good, but we have to get him back to rehab.”

Shepard behind
When the season began Tee Shepard was expected to be an important part of the Ole Miss secondary, rotating with Tony Bridges at cornerback as well as Kendarius Webster and giving depth to the position.

That hope has not transitioned on the playing field as quickly as everyone would have hoped.

The loud environments, including last week’s stop at Florida, has caused problems for the junior college transfer when it comes to dealing with his hearing impairment.

It is not the only factor playing into Shepard’s struggles. The level of competition and the speed of opposing offenses has also caused Freeze and the defensive coaches to not use Shepard as much on the road.

“He’s really struggled in getting the checks,” Freeze said of Shepard. “In that type of environment, (Florida) used a lot of shifts, a lot of motions. Everybody is kind of doing that to us. It has nothing to do with his physical skills, it’s just when they do that, we have to make a check that’s very difficult for him. … If they use any kind of short motion or shift, he’s going to have to look back to see and then all of the sudden the ball is snapped. That’s been an issue for us.”

Shepard has also been dealing with a knee injury that he suffered during the week leading up to the Vanderbilt game.

Walton injured
Running back Jaylen Walton is listed day-to-day leading up to Saturday’s contest against New Mexico State (11 a.m., SEC Network).

Walton is dealing with an injury which caused him to not finish the game against Florida last Saturday. With their starting running back’s status in question, some of the Rebels’ younger backs could get their number called this Saturday.

“The good thing about playing at home and against non-conference (opponent), you can play some more guys,” Freeze said. “D.K. Buford, a guy that I think is a very good running back, too. We’ll see what (Walton’s) health status is toward the end of the week.”