There was plenty of change in Oxford over the offseason, but the more things changed, some things – like Ole Miss’ position of finish in the division – are likely to remain the same, at least for now. New head coach Hugh Freeze has brought an air of optimism and freshness to the Rebels, who spent the last few years mired under Houston Nutt’s control. Freeze knows he’s not in for a quick turnaround, not with the Rebels lacking talent at key positions, most notably both lines of scrimmage. Being weak on the lines is a recipe for doom in the SEC.
Returning Offensive Starters: 4 (FL, TE, C, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 6 (RDT, LDT, MLB, WLB, RCB, SS)
Returning Specialists: 2 (P, PK)
Projected Overall Record: 4-8 (UA, ARK, AU, LSU, TEX, TAM, UGA, MSU)
Projected SEC Record: 1-7 (UA, ARK, AU, LSU, TAM, UGA, MSU)
Projected SEC West Record: 0-6 (UA, ARK, AU, LSU, TAM, MSU)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Fr Defensive Line: Fr
Running Backs: Fr Linebackers: Fr
Wide Receivers: Av Defensive Backs: Fr
Offensive Line: Fr Special Teams: Vg
Hugh Freeze is expected to open up the Rebel offense a bit, but opening it up isn’t the issue. The issue is making a plan and sticking to it, something Houston Nutt never did. Nutt preferred to run the ball, but Ole Miss at times resembled a take-chances spread team, which was not the Rebels’ character. Under Freeze, Ole Miss will be more aggressive and multiple from the outset. The Rebels will probably work from a three-wide set most of the time, but two things Ole Miss do have are multiple tight ends and capable fullbacks. There are decent weapons on offense, but the offensive line is rated “fair,” and that’s being a bit gracious. There’s no depth and the starters aren’t SEC quality.
QUARTERBACKS (rating: Fr; 5th SEC West, 10th overall)
West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti had a hard debut season in 2011, but so did every other Ole Miss quarterback. He’ll benefit the most from the change in offensive styles. Brunetti is still involved in competition for the job with Bo Wallace, a sophomore. Wallace is easily the more impressive physical specimen, but Brunetti has more game experience. Ole Miss’s depth took a bit of a punch when Zach Stoudt’s career came to an untimely end due to injury, which makes the third quarterback likely either true freshman Maikhail Miller or untested junior Robert Ratliff. Either way, if Ole Miss gets beyond the first two options, trouble is coming.
RUNNING BACKS (rating: Fr; 7th SEC West, 14th overall)
Ole Miss is keeping a chin-up attitude about starting Jeff Scott at tailback, but like Auburn with Onterio McCalebb, Scott doesn’t have the build to take every-down pounding like he’ll see in the SEC. All is not lost, however, as the Rebels do have two true freshmen with potential. I’Tavius Mathers has the look of a future star, while Jaylen Walton is a good scatback option. Adding to the mix is last year’s starting quarterback, Randall Mackey, who at least will bring an upperclassman’s presence to the position. Ole Miss boasts an underrated fullback in H.R. Greer, but no one knows yet how much action he’ll see in the new offensive system. Until Scott proves he can be a regular option, and either Mathers or Walton proves they can carry the load in SEC play, there will be more questions than answers. But there is optimism for the future.
WIDE RECEIVERS (rating: Av; 7th SEC West, 12th overall)
There are several recognizable names in this group, but it’s time for Ole Miss’ receivers to begin living up to their recruiting hype. Donte Moncrief will probably end up being the bellcow of this group after having the most reliable 2011 of anyone. Ja-Mes Logan and Vincent Sanders are the other likely starters, with Terrell Grant and Collins Moore the top backups. All have good height and decent speed, but getting open against SEC corners has been a challenge. Josh Pinkston adds depth. The Rebels have two underrated tight ends, Ferbia Allen and Jamal Mosley, who should stabilize the position – provided Mosley doesn’t miss much time due to a suspension following an offseason arrest. John Youngblood and fullback H.R. Greer will have to supplement the position if Mosley is out. Right now, the Rebels’ biggest problem is that no single wide receiver on the roster commands a double-team.
OFFENSIVE LINE (rating: Fr; 7th SEC West, 14th overall)
It’s just as bad as it looks. Only one starter returns, there is no depth and the coaches will have to use smoke and mirrors to craft a workable blocking scheme. Evan Swindall returns at center, and the right side of the line appears somewhat set with A.J. Hawkins at guard and Pierce Burton at tackle. The left side isn’t as solid; Emmanuel McCray looks to be ahead of the pack at left tackle, while Aaron Morris leads at left guard. Some combination of Jared Duke inside and Patrick Junen and Derrick Wilson outside will form up the depth chart, but the coaches are scrambling for someone more talented to provide competition. Justin Bell looks like the best bet among younger players. If injuries, hit, disaster is almost assured.
The Rebels will operate from a 4-2-5 base set, hoping to de-emphasize what has recently been a lackluster linebacker corps. The Rebels have a secondary that could be decent, and depth at defensive line isn’t terrible. What the Rebels really lack, though, is athleticism across the board, especially from the defensive ends and outside backers. The Rebels are prone to give up big plays in the flats and need to limit mental mistakes in coverage.
DEFENSIVE LINE (rating: Fr; 7th SEC West, 13th overall)
The good news is that Uriah Grant and Gilbert Pena are big bodies that can stop the run. The bad news is neither is great against the pass, and both are seniors, meaning Ole Miss needs to develop some younger players to replace them. Bryon Bennett returns at tackle and is battling with Pena for the starting slot. Carlton Martin will be Grant’s backup. The rest of the inside depth will come either from freshman Woodrow Hamilton or a pair of little-used seniors, Taurus Ward and Terrell Brown, the latter a 6’10”, 350-pound novelty. Veteran Gerald Rivers will start at one end slot across from C.J. Johnson, who is the closest thing Ole Miss has to a pass-rushing threat in 2012. True freshman Channing Ward will play somewhere, as he is likely the most talented defensive player on the roster. Converted fullback E.J. Epperson and Carlos Thompson are the other key backups at the position along with Cameron Whigham.
LINEBACKERS (rating: Fr; 7th SEC West, 13th overall)
With just two full-time starters, Ole Miss will be sandwiching three positions worth of players into two slots. Mike Marry seems to have secured the middle linebacker position, while either Joel Kight, Aaron Garbutt or Serderius Bryant figures to get the other. There is a lot of experience among those four players, but big plays have been few and far between. Ralph Williams adds depth. The fact this was one of the team’s most experienced units yet their roles are being de-emphasized should say something.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (rating: Fr; 6th SEC West, 12th overall)
The Rebels will employ two corners and three safeties full-time, and there is reasonable potential here. The loss of Snoop Brassell didn’t help matters, but the Rebels do have good depth if nothing else. Wesley Pendleton will be the lead cornerback of the group, starting opposite of either Dehendret Collins, a JUCO transfer, or Senquez Golson, most known as the guy Trent Richardson left sprawled across both the goal line and three small counties on his way to a touchdown in Oxford last year. Charles Sawyer is a quality strong safety with all-star potential, and the “Husky” safety, the new position in the Rebels’ scheme, goes to Brishen Mathews, who isn’t bad. Free safety belongs to a redshirt freshman, Chief Brown, of whom much is expected. Frank Crawford, Ivan Nicholas and Tanner Burns will back up the safety slots.
SPECIAL TEAMS (rating: Vg; 2nd SEC West, 2nd overall)
The one absolute strength of this team is the special teams unit. Bryson Rose is one of the best kickers in America, while punter Tyler Campbell is consistently solid. Jeff Scott might not be the ideal running back, but he’s a weapon as a kick and punt returner. Tobias Singleton was set to help him on kickoffs before exiting the program over the summer, so the Rebels need to find someone who can pick up the slack.
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