Nick’s Notes: Ole Miss offense deals with injury bug while defense prepares to face Liberty QB Malik Willis
OXFORD, Miss. — This Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, a banged-up No. 16-ranked Ole Miss (6-2, 3-2 SEC) takes on Liberty (7-2). Kickoff is set for 11:00 a.m. (CT) and the game will be televised on the SEC Network.
At this point in the season, the Rebels’ offense finds itself depleted due to injuries. “For whatever reason they’re just all on offense,” head coach Lane Kiffin said earlier this week. “And even some that are playing, like our quarterback, even some that are playing aren’t close to 100 percent.” he added.
The position group that has experienced the biggest bite from the injury bug is the wide receivers. Jonathan Mingo hasn’t played since September, and Braylon Sanders was injured against the Vols and hasn’t played since October 16. The third, Dontario Drummond, was injured (hamstring) against Auburn.
“If we were playing today (Monday), we’re in a worse position than we’ve been yet,” Kiffin said. “None of the three receivers are available.”
Fortunately against the Tigers, tight end Casey Kelly and wide receiver Jahcour Pearson stepped up and made plays, giving quarterback Matt Corral reliable targets in the passing game.
“I always kind of envision myself making plays.” Kelly said. “It’s kind of one thing I do on my free time, just envision myself making those plays, then when you go out there it’s kind of like second nature,” he added.
Pearson lead the team in receiving against Auburn with 135 yards.
“I was just trying to make any play that came my way and try find a way to help the team win. I don’t want to put pressure on myself. I just want to go out there and execute and do my job to my best ability.”
WR Jahcour Pearson
In Saturday’s game against Auburn, Matt Corral went down with what at first appeared to be a serious injury. He returned later in the game and was relatively mobile considering how much pain he was in after the injury.
On two bad ankles 😤
Matt Corral finds the end zone. pic.twitter.com/qXjxPQckIq
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) October 31, 2021
On Monday, however, Coach Kiffin noted Corral was not practicing while he tries to recover. “Yeah, he did not do anything today (Monday),” Kiffin said. “I was surprised he came back because it looked like it was really bad, obviously when it happened it looked season-ending, broken. That’s how he felt it was. Luckily it wasn’t, so he was able to come back in,” said Kiffin.
Kiffin talked about the pressure Corral is under as a result of being without all his main targets, explaining that was the reason behind the interception against the Tigers — just Corral’s second of the year.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, how good you are, your position or whatever,” Kiffin said. “When you try to force things and get out of doing what the plan is, that can happen. I think everyone knows why that happened. He felt like he had to create something, we weren’t making a lot of plays around him, and he’s at that point where he’s playing without basically five starters on offense, and he’s just trying too hard. He’s very competitive and that can backfire.”
LIberty QB Malik Willis
This week the Ole Miss defense will be presented with quite the challenge in the form of Liberty quarterback Malik Willis. The redshirt junior from Atlanta is one of the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft, possessing the ability to make big play with his arm and legs.
For those keeping an eye on the 2022 NFL Draft, Liberty QB Malik Willis is on your radar.
And it’s impossible to throw this ball any better.
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) October 30, 2021
This season, Willis has thrown for 1,986 yards with 21 touchdowns against six interceptions. On the ground, he has tallied 684 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry with nine touchdowns. He is Liberty’s leading rusher— and it’s not even close. He has notched 376 more yards than the second leading rusher.
“I get reports from our guys from the other side (defense) on how hard he is to defend. I would like for this to be some opponent you’ve never heard of before and (one that) didn’t have a first round draft pick at quarterback. That would be nice, but it’s basically like having another SEC game. It is what it is.“
Coach Kiffin on Malik Willis
Ole Miss defensive backs Deantre Prince and A.J. Finley spoke this week about what it is that Willis does that makes him such a formidable opponent. “He has a great arm. Good ability with his feet,” Prince said.
“We’re going to try to contain him and also make sure we stay in coverage to make sure he doesn’t get any deep shots that he wants or the run that he wants,” Prince added.
— Liberty Mtn Views 🦅 (@LibertyMtnViews) October 27, 2021
Finley, too, is impressed with the versatile Willis. “He’s a mobile guy that can extend plays with his legs,” he began.
“I feel like one of the biggest things is going to be able to contain him and not letting him extend plays with his legs. If he does extend the play, we have to make sure we get to him and tackle him.”
This season, Liberty’s defense is giving up an average of 300 yards per game — 133.6 rushing and 166.4 passing — and only 17.8 points per game.
While those are great numbers, one must consider the competition the Flames have played thus far this season. Their strength of schedule ranking is 126th out of 130 FBS teams. This week versus Ole Miss, Liberty will play by far the best offense they’ve faced all season — regardless of how many Rebels are out injured.