OXFORD, Miss. — Energy was high at Tuesday’s Ole Miss practice as the Rebels (5-2, 1-2 SEC) continue preparations to host Auburn (4-3, 1-3 SEC) Saturday in Vaught-Hemingway.
One noticeable absence on the field was that of wide receiver D.K. Metcalf, who suffered a season-ending neck injury against Arkansas. The redshirt sophomore wore a neck brace as he watched his teammates practice inside the Manning Center Tuesday.
Rebels coping with loss of Metcalf
The loss of a 6-foot-4 receiver on the outside with the level of talent Metcalf possesses, is not an easy obstacle to overcome. When teammate and fellow wide receiver A.J. Brown was asked about the loss of such an instrumental player, he was obviously moved.
“Man, I don’t want to get too emotional, but that is hard to answer,” Brown said. “A tremendous player who, honestly, doesn’t deserve that injury, We worked so hard in the offseason to get ready. I’m sorry. I can’t,” he said as he held back tears.
(A.J. Brown speaks after practice Tuesday. Video: Archie Breland, The Rebel Walk)
In Metcalf’s stead, young members of the famed Nasty Wide Outs, or “NWO” as the receiving corps is known, will have to step up and fill in for Metcalf’s lost production. Before his injury, Metcalf had amassed 569 receiving yards on the season—placing him at No. 3 in the SEC. He leads the Rebels with five touchdowns.
Fortunately, Ole Miss wide receivers coach Jacob Peeler and his staff have been able to consistently bring in top talent at the position–players he feels are ready to fill in for D.K. in his absence.
“Braylon (Sanders) has had a tremendous season…I trust him 100%. He’s learned from those guys, and he’s a starter in our minds. He has been going with the ones all of fall camp, and he has been going with the ones even during practice, so we are really excited about seeing what he can do on Saturday.”
WR Coach Jacob Peeler on Braylon Sanders
Sanders, a sophomore out of Georgia, has already produced some solid performances, including a 133-yard game against Southern Illinois when DaMarkus Lodge was out with injury. Sanders has totaled 247 yards on 12 receptions this season, which averages out to a staggering 20.6 yards per catch.
Other wide receivers who can be counted on to help include senior Alex Weber and true freshmen targets, Miles Battle and Elijah Moore. While D.K.’s presence will certainly be missed, the NWO is ready to keep the momentum going into the Auburn game with help from the Rebels’ deep array of talent.
When asked if he was concerned that D.K.’s absence might lead defenses to focus even more on him, Brown noted he is not worried.
“If they do, Elijah (Moore) will go off or somebody else will go off. It doesn’t matter. Whatever they do, we just make an adjustment to it.”
A.J. Brown on thoughts that defenses might focus more on him in Metcalf’s absence
Brown reiterated his complete confidence in the receiving corps. “We like the challenge,” he said. “We look forward to it. You play in the SEC to play against the best, and Auburn is part of the best.”
Hibbler gaining more confidence
On the defensive side of the ball, junior linebacker Willie Hibbler is settling in to his position. In fact, against Arkansas last weekend, he tallied five tackles–including a tackle for loss and a pass break-up–en route to the Rebels’ 37-33 comeback win over the Hogs.
After practice Tuesday, the North Panola High product talked about his big pass deflection that not only stopped the Razorbacks’ drive, but saved Ole Miss from having to use a time out.
“We changed to cover two,” he said. “I saw the X-receiver split, and that’s something I always remember. When the receiver splits he’s going to crack me or he’s trying to pin me off of the running back. In cover two, I knew I had the outside guy. I knew was it was third down, and when he came in I was thinking the crack—but I saw the running back flare, so I just knew to relate to my coverage.”
Hibbler’s play was timed perfectly so as to avoid a pass interference call. “I knew I couldn’t grab him with my left hand and knock him down, or it would be a flag, so I just used my length to knock the ball down,” Hibbler explained.
The 4-star tight end-turned-linebacker seems to be much more comfortable with his role on the defensive side and says he has been pushed by his teammates to get better and better and to use his imposing 6-foot-3 250-pound frame to his advantage.
“Last Tuesday at practice, I just got up and my teammates, like MoMo (Sanogo) and Donta (Evans) and a few other guys, they were just pushing me,” Hibbler said.
“They were like I need to run to the ball more. Them pushing me just brought me out Tuesday. I had a great Tuesday practice which led all the way up to Saturday.“
Willie Hibbler on how his teammates have helped him
Ole Miss and Auburn kick off at 11:00 a.m. (CT) this Saturday, and the game will be televised on ESPN.