The Southeastern Conference announced the suspension of freshman defensive back Trae Elston Tuesday for what the league office deemed a “flagrant and dangerous act” during the fourth quarter of the Rebels’ 28-10 win over UTEP.
“Our first thoughts are with Trae. Trae's our guy,” Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork said. “He's a great student-athlete here at Ole Miss. He represents everything we're trying to do as far as character and athleticism with our football team. He’s a great example of what we stand for.
“We're disappointed he can't play on Saturday. I can tell you we worked within the process that’s defined by the conference. We talked to Commissioner (Mike) Slive on multiple occasions. We talked to Steve Shaw, who is the supervisor of officials. The bottom line is that they have a job to do -- player safety -- and look at these types of hits. We made our case for Trae and our program. Ultimately, it’s their decision. We respect that moving forward.”
The hit, which wasn’t called for a penalty in the game, was in violation of Rule 9-1-4 of the NCAA Football Rule Book, according to the SEC, as well as Rule 9-1-3. Both rules pertain to targeting, meaning a player leading with the crown of his helmet against a defenseless player.
Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said he learned of the suspension around 5:30 p.m. Monday night. “My first reaction was ‘Oh my gosh,’” he said. He was shocked.
“It’s gotta change technique,” Freeze said of the new rules. “We’ve actually addressed that because the new rule on targeting is anything that hits a defenseless player from the neck area up is considered targeting. Your defensive backs are going to have to change their sight level. They’ve got to keep their facemask up.
“That’s the one thing the Trae did do. It’s the reason we’re in this situation. His head did tilt. Certainly you don’t want any of that to be the case for any player, where their head is tilted down, to hit with the crown of their helmet. But in those plays that happen that quick, it’s very difficult.
“He was real close to being perfect, in my opinion. And I think (the SEC) would say that. But there were elements of it that they thought the crown of the helmet was involved too much.”
Bjork said the university made its case against the suspension. “There's specific things on the film that we pointed out during the process,” he said.
However, there were no discussions concerning similar hits around the league or the possibility of the league reacting due to the injury of Tulane’s DeVon Walker, who fractured his spine while attempting a tackle against Tulsa over the weekend.
“This is a tough position for the commissioner, and we acknowledge that,” Bjork said. “He acknowledged that. There was a lot of anguish for making this decision on his part.”
Elston, one of Ole Miss’ most decorated signees in the 2012 signing class, is in his first season at Ole Miss. He played 30 plays against UTEP, and was acting as the primary back-up to junior Charles Sawyer at safety.
Freeze said his playing time was likely to increase against Texas.
“I’m disappointed that we don’t have Trae,” Freeze said. “I want everybody to know the type of kid he is and the type of player he is. Certainly (there) was not intent to hurt anyone. It’s unfortunate. I understand what they’re trying to get across. I get that.
“When it initially happened, these days, you usually see a flag. I thought that it had a chance to be flagged. I know this about Trae Elston: It was not an intent, dirty, unsportsmanlike play. It was a tough, bang-bang play.”
There is no appeals process for such a suspension, not even the possibility of a reduction to an in-game suspension, according to Bjork. The decision is final. Elston, who practiced with the team Tuesday, will have to sit out the game and return next week.
“The best thing that we can say right now to our players especially, and then to our fans and the Ole Miss family, is we’ve got a big game Saturday night,” Bjork said. “We have three days to prepare -- Wednesday, Thursday and Friday -- and then Saturday to prepare for one of the biggest games here in a long time. That’s really our focus moving ahead.”
With Elston out, Freeze said the team will rotate Sawyer, sophomore Cody Prewitt and redshirt freshman Chief Brown. Sawyer and Prewitt started against Central Arkansas and UTEP. Brown appeared in both games.
“We’ve got to find somebody,” Freeze said. “Next man up. We have a saying: You don’t blink. Next man up. So, we’ve got to get more plays out of other guys.”
Elston was not made available for comment. Bjork spoke with Elston and his family regarding the suspension Tuesday morning. Bjork said Elston has handled the suspension well.
“His attitude about this whole thing has really been encouraging,” Bjork said. “He’s a perfect example. Considering the circumstances, he was great about it. Our job is to support him, and I think we’ve done that with him privately and we’ve now done that publically with all of you and with our team.”
Freeze echoed the sentiments of Bjork in regards to Elston’s attitude.
“He’s been great. He’s been super,” Freeze said. “He’s disappointed, obviously. That would have been the biggest game of his life, playing on national television against Texas. He’s disappointed.
“Adversity comes in all kinds of ways within a team or within your life. When adversity comes, you’ve got a choice of how you’re going to handle it, and Trae’s going to handle it the right way. He’s got a good support system around him. We’ve got great support from our administration, our A.D. and our president. He’s going to handle it fine. It’s going to be tough for him to sit out, ‘cause he wants to compete. But he’ll handle it and bounce back.”
* Elston news aside, Ole Miss returned to practice after an off-day Monday in preparation for Texas. Freeze said the work day was an improvement from last week.
“It was a better Tuesday,” he said. “We’re hopefully starting to understand that this is a big-time work day. We’ve got weights in the morning, we’ve got school, we’ve got meetings and we’ve got practice. Tuesday’s a grind, but it’s a work day and we’ve got to embrace that. It was definitely better than last Tuesday.”
* Senior defensive end Gerald Rivers has sat out the first two games of the season as he awaits word from the NCAA Clearinghouse on his appeal for immediate eligibility. If you remember, he was ruled academically ineligible after he came up a class short of his academic requirements for the fall term. Ole Miss hopes to hear word within the next week, according to a source.
* Ole Miss had trouble with its punt returns against UTEP. Not only did Korvic Neat muff a punt which led to a turnover, but Philander Moore struggled as well, muffing a punt of his own that was recovered by the Rebels. Freeze said Neat will handle the punt return duties against Texas.
“I hope we catch the ball. I just want the ball after it’s over,” he said, laughing. “Korvic’s been very steady. That one he muffed, there was a cover guy coming at him and he got distracted. We’ve got to keep working those scenarios. I really think Korvic will be fine.”
* Freshman defensive tackle Issac Gross has been dealing with a nagging calf injury he suffered in the Rebels' season-opening win against UCA. He was seen riding a stationary bike off to the side during practice Tuesday. However, Freeze expects him to be ready for the Longhorns.
“That calf has just been irritated again,” Freeze said. “It’s probably going to be something he’s going to deal with for a few weeks. Issac’s got that little deal, but I expect him to go.”