AUBURN, Ala. — The storyline has been rehashed to death by now. Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze followed similar paths to get to where they’re at. They are both former high school coaches and SEC assistants who coached at Arkansas State for one season. The two used that success with the Red Wolves to return to the SEC, with Freeze taking over at Ole Miss last season and Malzahn now in his first year on the Plains. The other factor the two friends have in common?
They favor hurry-up, no-huddle offensive attacks.
But just how similar are the two schemes?
Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson knows better than anyone, since he has been practicing against the Tigers’ offense since the spring and has broken down film of the Rebels for the better part of two weeks.
Johnson detailed what insight he’d been able to glean about the Ole Miss offense.
“I would say it’s a little bit more four-detached receivers than our offense does, but our offense does quite a bit of that too,” he said. “Their play of preference might be a little bit different, but we’ve seen everything. We’ve seen three backs in the backfield, two backs in the backfield, one back in the backfield, empty formation, so they’ve done a little bit of everything. The difficulty is we’ve seen all of their different formations, but you don’t know what they’re going to use against you.”
The Rebels also resemble the Tigers’ last opponent — LSU — at the receiver position. Where LSU had the dynamic duo of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, Ole Miss boasts the electric trio of Donte Moncrief, Laquon Treadwell and Evan Engram, who have combined for 50 catches, 627 yards and four touchdowns.
But making any direct comparisons with LSU’s receivers was difficult for Johnson.
“LSU runs more of a power offense, more of a maximum protection with deep throws, double moves and those type things,” he said. “Ole Miss will have those things, but they come off an option offense, a spread offense. So it’s a little different style.”
Josh Holsey didn’t have the same problem contrasting between the two receiving corps. In fact, Holsey’s first career start came last year versus Ole Miss, when he was still at cornerback for the Tigers.
So the sophomore safety has already seen Landry, Beckham and Moncrief up-close, and will get his initial look at the true freshmen pair of Treadwell and Engram on Saturday.
“I want to say that LSU's wide receivers are probably a lot faster, but the wide receivers at Ole Miss are probably a little bigger and probably they run a lot better routes,” he said. “Beckham and them were really deep shot guys. These guys don't really take a lot of shots like that, but they do take their shots here and there.”
Auburn’s offense will look to take some chances when it can. But offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee knows it will be a tall task against Ole Miss. Lashlee praised the work of Dave Wommack, noting that the Rebels’ defensive coordinator has the unit taking advantage of its strengths — a rare blend of big bodies that are still light on their feet.
“They’re really fast, really athletic,” Lashlee said. “They’re playing some young guys that are talented but they’ve got a good mix of guys that have played. Trae Elston stands out, the safety. He’s a good football player, playing real good for them. D.T. Shackelford is a linebacker I know has been there for a while playing. They’ve got some of those young guys that are really talented.”
One of those youthful Rebels was the nation’s top prospect last season, Robert Nkemdiche. The Georgia native is still looking for his first sack, but he is tied for second on the team in tackles for loss with four.
The true freshman defensive end is far from the only player on the line who has Lashlee worried, though.
“They’re (all) big guys that can move,” he said. “If you get them out of position, they recover well. What looks like is going to be a really good play turns into a five-yard gain.”
Knowing the challenge that awaits his team Saturday, Malzahn was thankful the game will be played in front of a partisan crowd.
“It’s good that we're playing at home,” he said. “Our last home game, Mississippi State, the crowd was a huge factor and we're going to need that same energy and passion.”