By PARRISH ALFORD
Contributing Writer – Daily Journal
As published in the March/April Issue
The end of the Cody Prewitt Era brings about a change in leadership among the Ole Miss safeties in the months ahead.
The obvious choice to become the voice on the back end is rising senior Trae Elston.
An off-field issue in January has put Elston off to a slow start in replacing a two-time All-American who had everyone’s attention all the time.
Prewitt broke into the starting lineup as a freshman late in the 2011 season.
As the plays and games rolled on he gained the experience and accepted the roles that go along with a four-year starter.
Elston was one of the prize signees in Freeze’s first class, the abbreviated group that came together quickly after his hiring in December of 2011.
It wasn’t long before Elston was in the lineup. He started nine games, but starting and leading are different things.
Elston has never had a problem with not being “the man” among the safeties.
“It’s all about the team. If Cody gets All-American, that’s an All-American for all of us. We’re all helping each other out being successful,” he said.
Elston and cornerback Mike Hilton – who plays a variety of secondary positions – will be the seniors in the defensive backfield in 2015.
“It will be tough to replace Cody. He meant so much to the program the last three years with his production between the lines as well as his leadership in the meeting room and off-season, things people don’t see but you can’t put a pricetag on,” said Corey Batoon, who was promoted administrative assistant to safeties coach in January.
At the same time, the model Prewitt presented has Elston ready to take on that different role, Batoon said.
“We have guys who will have to assume Cody’s role and guys who are capable of doing it. As people develop roles shift. Leadership was not their role when Cody was there. That’s part of the maturation process. It will be excited to see a guy like Trae and what role he takes,” Batoon said. “It will be different for him, but it will be familiar because he’s had a good role model in how to do things, how to lead by example but also be a vocal leader.”
Ironically, one of Elston’s first off-season acts of leadership has been to accept responsibility for his own poor judgment.
Before younger players will buy in to Elston as a leader he’ll have to distance himself from a Jan. 21 arrest in downtown Oxford.
Elston and transfer wide receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow were both charged with disorderly conduct, and Elston was charged with resisting arrest after initially running away from the arresting Oxford Police Department officer.
The police report identified Elston as throwing a punch at another man.
Two days after the incident Elston issued a public apology on Twitter.
It was an act of contrition that didn’t erase the arrest but was a first step in moving forward and regaining trust of coaches and teammates.
Freeze doesn’t comment on internal discipline matters. If he handles Elston and Stringfellow the way he has handled similar arrests previously, they will have several points of an action plan to complete.
Their status for spring drills in March has not been announced.
As Elston’s arrest was coming to light Prewitt was participating in Senior Bowl practices in Mobile.
“He’s just going to have to step up in his role. The last couple of years he’s been able to lean on me as the leader of the defense. He’ll be one of the more experienced players returning on the defense, and he’s playing safety. He’s going to be back there running things,” Prewitt said.
He believes Elston will move on from the arrest and take the necessary steps to be the leader the staff is hoping he’ll become.
“Starting in the spring he’s going to have to push himself to become the leader everyone looks up to,” Prewitt said. “He performs like a top-notch athlete. Mentally his game is just as good as mine is. The coaches just gave me a little more stress, I guess.”
Part of Prewitt’s stress came from reading the offense in front of him and helping teammates get in the right positions.
There are complexities within the Ole Miss defense, and responsibilities are not evenly distributed.
It’s not easy, and much of that load is expected to fall to Elston.
“There’s always a transition when you’re not the same guy you were six months ago,” Batoon said. “Our defense isn’t simple by any stretch, the checks, the things we put on those guys in the back end. Really being exposed to that for the first time, being the quarterback of the defense … that’s a tough transition.”
High School star in Alabama
ESPN rated Elston a four-star prospect out of Oxford, Ala., in 2012.
Months later Elston would make the SEC’s all-freshman team after becoming the full-time Rover, and ESPN.com would name him the SEC’s hardest-hitting freshman.
One of those hits cost Elston a game when Texas visited Oxford that freshman season. In the first season of the targeting rule, Elston was suspended for helmet-to-helmet contact with a UTEP receiver.
He went on to post 61 tackles as a freshman.
“I think my hitting ability is one of my strengths,” Elston said. “People say I’m small, but I pack a punch.”
Elston was rated the No. 12 safety in the country, among the top 15 prospects in Alabama in his class and also played some cornerback.
He’s been strictly a safety at Ole Miss, most often the strong safety – what the Rebels’ call the Rover in their 4-2-5 scheme.
He finished his freshman season with 61 tackles and six pass break-ups.
He had 62 tackles and broke up six more passes as a sophomore.
In a league where 210-pound safeties flying to the football are a common scene Elston (6-0, 195) makes up for his somewhat smaller size with quickness and timing.
He was all over the field in the Rebels’ 23-17 win over No. 1 Alabama, his home state school, with nine tackles and a pass break-up.
He had a career-high 11 tackles three weeks later at LSU.
He went on to finish his junior season with 59 tackles, missing the Presbyterian game with a concussion. He had three tackles for loss, three pass break-ups, a fumble recovery, a forced fumble and, against Memphis, the first interception of his career.
Soft hands and big hits don’t always go together. The Rover position allows Elston to play to his chief asset, his physicality.
“That’s how I’m going to play. It’s going to be 100 percent,” he said.
Now the mentality has to be to lead, to share in the responsibility for the play of others, not his play alone.
The first item of business must be to move past the arrest.
Elston said his voice in the secondary increased in 2014. He knows he’ll be relied upon even more this fall, and he’s glad to have another senior back there with him.
“A lot will change. Mike and me will be seniors, and we’ve got to step up our game. What Cody said went in terms of coverages. Next year it will be like that for Mike and me,” Elston said. “I’m comfortable with that. I started doing some of that this year.” – RR
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