Ole Miss cornerbacks adjusting to aggressive, simple life under Wesley McGriff

Published 2:21 pm Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Most of Ole Miss first-year defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff’s background is in the secondary, so it’s no surprise things are changing for the Rebels’ cornerbacks.

The group is starting to get a good idea this spring of how they’re going to play under McGriff, who coached cornerbacks in his first stint at Ole Miss in 2012 and has coached numerous secondaries at the college and NFL levels, including Auburn last season. It starts, players said, with more aggression.

“It’s more in your face, blitzing, all that different stuff,” said rising sophomore Myles Hartsfield, who’s made the move from safety to corner this spring. “Our secondary, we’re faster this year, so we’re running with receivers. We’re playing man a lot. I feel like that’s working to our strengths.”

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Hartsfield and Jaylon Jones, who played in every game with one start as a true freshman last season, are getting a bulk of the reps with Ken Webster (recovery from reconstructive knee surgery) and Jalen Julius (fractured arm) out. Rising junior Cam Ordway, who was primarily a special-teams contributor a season ago, and junior college transfer Javien Hamilton are also working at the position, which still features a lot of youth with the Rebels losing four cornerbacks to graduation.

But Jones said everybody is embracing the coach’s aggressive style.

“McGriff has us down there (pressing) a lot, but that lets us know he has trust in us,” Jones said. “We work every day on our technique, so we like the press. We tell him we want it.”

Exactly how close are the cornerbacks lining up on receivers before the snap?

“As far as the referee lets me,” Hartsfield said. “I’m right there close and personal.”

Ole Miss played a lot of man coverage last season under former coordinator Dave Wommack but often got burnt by the deep ball. The Rebels ranked 48th nationally in pass defense last season but allowed nearly 13 yards per completion. Auburn, with McGriff tutoring the secondary, held teams to a Southeastern Conference-low 11.03 yards per completion.

Jones said an overload of plays and coverages in a more detailed scheme complicated things on the back end last season, something McGriff has made a point to simplify.

“The thing was I think it was a lot on us of the playbook,” Jones said. “Coach McGriff, he didn’t want us like robots out there, and he condensed the defensive scheme. It’s less thinking. We’re just playing fast without thinking.”

McGriff has tried to find a balance between having his corners press and not getting beat deep by teaching a step-and-replace technique, which, if executed properly, allows defensive backs to always stay over the top of the receivers, Hartsfield said.

“We gave up a lot last year,” Jones said. “We’re still giving up some and we’re still learning, but that’s definitely a major key we try to emphasize on is the explosive plays.”

Natural move

The move to corner has been a smooth one for Hartsfield, who was originally recruited as a corner after playing the position in high school and prep school.

The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder finished with 43 tackles, two tackles for loss and a pass breakup as a true freshman last season, but with the injuries to Webster and Julius, coaches decided to put Hartsfield back at the position that’s more natural to him.

“I feel like I’m more athletic, a bigger corner than usual,” Hartsfield said. “I play to my strengths, so I’m more comfortable there than safety.”

Others at the position have been impressed by what they’ve seen from Hartsfield throughout the spring.

“His first day, he was putting hands on them. He’s a good athlete,” Jones said. “It was an easy transition for him. I don’t know if he’s going to stay there, but he’s real comfortable and he’s looking real good.”