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Ole Miss has become the media darling team of the SEC West, as some media members searched for any reason they could find not to pick either Alabama, LSU or Auburn to win the division. The Rebels make some sense as a potential party-crasher, thanks to a veteran starting quarterback, some star power scattered here and there on the roster, improving depth and a defense that got a lot saltier in Hugh Freeze’s second season. But the lack of overall depth and concern over the offensive line could doom Ole Miss’ chances out of the gate.
Returning Offensive Starters: 4 (SE, LT, RG, QB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 9 (DT, NT, MLB, WLB, ROV, RCB, LCB, FS, SS)
Returning Specialists: 0
Projected Overall Record: 9-3 (UA, AU, LSU)
Projected SEC Record: 5-3 (UA, AU, LSU)
Projected SEC West Record: 3-3 (UA, AU, LSU)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Av Defensive Line: Av
Running Backs: Av Linebackers: Vg
Wide Receivers: Av Defensive Backs: Ex
Offensive Line: Av Special Teams: Pr
Ole Miss runs a hurry-up, no-huddle offense, but Freeze’s version strives for more balance than does Auburn’s. The Rebels passed better than they ran in 2013 (23rd in passing vs. 42nd in rushing), but Ole Miss’ chief aim in 2014 needs to be limiting mistakes, upping the consistency and to resist the temptation to be too cute by half.
Bo Wallace is like something out of a bad Hollywood movie about college football. He makes boneheaded plays when Ole Miss can least afford them, but he also makes miracle plays with regularity and seems to be able to execute at an overall level well beyond his raw skill set. The difference for Ole Miss between this year and last is that there is no safety net this time out. Barry Brunetti, an accomplished backup to Wallace last season, has graduated, leaving freshman DeVante Kincade as Wallace’s likely understudy. Kincade is a smaller quarterback with good wheels, but is a suspect passer. Ryan Buchanan would be more along the lines of Wallace’s profile, but the real question is whether Jeremy Liggins, who is bigger than a lot of starting SEC offensive linemen, will really get a shot under center.
The loss of Jeff Scott hurts from a leadership and game-breaking standpoing, but I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton ought to be able to pick up the slack. Mathers gives Ole Miss more of an inside running threat than Scott ever produced, while Walton is the consummate HUNH scatback. Redshirt freshman Jordan Wilkins, JUCO transfer Akeem Judd and backup quarterback Jeremy Liggins will provide depth. There is no fullback, unless the 300-pound Liggins adds the role to his already-packed repertoire.
The heat will be on sophomore Laquon Treadwell, who needs to step up from possession receiver to fill the outside threat role vacated by the departed Donte Moncrief. Treadwell caught 72 passes last year, but averaged just 8.4 yards per catch. Vincent Sanders and Quincy Adeboyejo will start at the other two positions. Junior Cody Core has an underrated skill set and will be a key player off the bench, along with Collins Moore and incoming freshman Markell Pack. Evan Engram will get the first shot at tight end. He has impressive receiving skills, but virtually no bulk, and his blocking ability is suspect. Nicholas Parker will get a shot at playing time, and DE Channing Ward got some snaps at the position in the spring and could play both ways. Jeremy Liggins could also factor in here as well.
To get it out of the way, Jeremy Liggins is not in the mix here. Having said that, Ole Miss has issues. The Rebels have one bona fide star (LT Lareny Tunsil) and another solid starter (RG Justin Bell), and three big question marks. Ben Still held the center position coming out of spring and Aaron Morris the left guard position, but the right tackle position was – and is – completely unsettled. Robert Conyers is competing for the job with JUCO transfer Fahn Cooper. Behind those six players, there is vitually no depth. Redshirt freshman Daronte Bouldin was the seventh man in spring, but true freshman Rod Taylor is expected to supplant him. None of the other names on the roster had emerged heading into fall camp.
Like HUNH brethren Auburn, Ole Miss runs a full-time 4-2-5 defense. And, like Auburn, the offense gets off the field so quickly at times that the defense gets beaten to a bloody pulp. Ole Miss made tremendous strides forward in 2013 nonetheless, finishing 36th in pass defense and 37th in scoring defense – but still ranked in the middle to the bottom of the conference in all major defensive numbers. The Rebels are shuffling personnel up front to put an emphasis on speed, but the real question is whether the secondary’s improvement was all smoke and mirrors, or if it was legit.
The move of Robert Nkemdiche from end to tackle seems to make little sense for a team struggling to stop the run, but Ole Miss is doing it anyway. The move will certainly make the Rebels more dangerous from a pass-rushing standpoint, but the move benches returning starter Bryon Bennett, who will now be the chief backup to both Nkemdiche and Woodrow Hamilton, who is the closest thing Ole Miss has to a noseguard. Isaac Gross adds depth. Outside, converted linebacker C.J. Johnson will probably be the most dangerous pass-rusher, while Florida International transfer Fadol Brown gives Ole Miss some size on the strongside. Carlos Thompson, Channing Ward and Marquis Haynes provide the depth there. The Rebels failed to recruit much help beyond Haynes, however, making this a thin unit with a lot of question marks.
The trio of Serderius Bryant, Denzel Nkemdiche and D.T. Shackelford should make the Rebels stout at the second level. Nkemdiche has some disciplinary action to take care of first, but Bryant improved enough in 2013 that Ole Miss at least doesn’t have to be a one-man show with Nkemdiche leading the band anymore. JUCO transfer Christian Russell adds further depth and gives the Rebels a true two-deep rotation. Temario Strong and Keith Lewis provide further depth.
Everything is fine now, but Ole Miss is just hoping to get to the opener with no further injuries. Do-everything Chief Brown was lost for the season, and JUCO transfer Tee Shepard followed him soon after. The five starters from a year ago are still in the good graces of the training staff – safeties Tony Conner, Cody Prewitt and Trae Elston and corners Mike Hilton and Senquez Golson – but the level of improvement the Rebels displayed in 2013 wasn’t expected, and many observers are waiting to see if it can hold up for the entirety of 2014. Conner is a no-doubt superstar, but Elston and Prewitt overachieved. The prowess of the safety trio covered up some shortcomings at corner. With Brown and Shepard out, C.J. Hampton will have to step up at safety along with Anthony Alford, while Derrick Jones becomes the third corner.
Several teams find themselves replacing both kickers, and Ole Miss is in that group. The punting position would seem to fall to true freshman Gary Wunderlich, who many had ranked as the top kicker available in this year’s signing class. Will Gleeson was competing in the spring. At placekicker, redshirt freshman Andy Pappanastos holds a slight edge over senior Andrew Fletcher. Special teams ought to be a hoot in the early going.
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