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Communication ‘critical’ for Rebels’ defense against Tigers

Last season, Memphis brought the same offense with the same quarterback into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium and left with just three points to show for its effort in a 21-point loss.

But this isn’t the same Memphis offense, and it won’t be going up against the same Ole Miss defense when the 13th-ranked Rebels make the return trip to the Liberty Bowl for Saturday’s rematch.

Memphis can credit its resurgence to an aerial assault that uses a variety of window dressing before the snap in an attempt to free up targets for junior quarterback Paxton Lynch, who’s completing 71 percent of his passes for the nation’s 12th-ranked passing offense (335 yards per game). Lynch and company will be going against an Ole Miss defense that’s giving up more than 203 yards a game through the air, which ranks ninth in the Southeastern Conference.

“If you don’t have guys out there that are on the same page — and they use a lot more motions than what they used in the past — then you’ve got issues,” Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. “It’s caused people problems.”

Coaches and players have cited a lack of communication in the back seven as one of the main culprits for a defense that started the year with new faces in new places and has done more shuffling with a rash of injuries.

The A.J. Moore experiment at Huskie lasted two games once Tony Conner went out with a knee injury before Mike Hilton, who was already at a new position at rover, moved back before last week’s game against New Mexico State. Junior college transfer Terry Caldwell was forced into a starting role last week when former defensive end C.J. Johnson’s first season at middle linebacker was interrupted with the same knee injury.

But Ole Miss (5-1, 2-1 SEC) struggled to keep teams from dinking and dunking even with Conner and Johnson on the field. Alabama threw for 288 yards and ran 101 plays against the Rebels last month while Vanderbilt and Florida often found Ole Miss out of position to combine for 465 passing yards while converting 47 percent of the time (18 of 38) on third down.

New Mexico State didn’t put up much of a fight last Saturday in the Rebels’ 52-3 rout nor did the Aggies use many shifts or motions against Ole Miss’ new-look defense, which had Caldwell, Hilton and free safety C.J. Hampton in the starting lineup for the first time together.

“We didn’t have a whole lot of that going on Saturday to really test us,” head coach Hugh Freeze said.

Feeling their way
Though it was against inferior competition, the new lineup got better as the game went on. Caldwell recorded a team-high five tackles and a sack, Hilton posted a team-best three tackles for loss while pulling down his first interception, and Wommack credited Hampton with “a nice job” in his first game as a starter.

“I feel like all five of us mesh pretty well back there together,” Hilton said. “Puts a lot more experience and little more speed out there also. Of course we miss Tony because he’s a big piece of it, but we feel like with the guys with have in place, we didn’t really lose a step.”

But Memphis, which has had an extra week to possibly add even more wrinkles to the nation’s fourth-ranked scoring offense, will require Ole Miss’ defense to be dialed in from start to finish.

“There’s no question that with the open week before us and with their schemes, there will be a lot of moving parts that you have to get adjusted to,” Freeze said. “That will be critical.”