2013 Fall Previews: Ole Miss Rebels

 

LSU Tigers defensive tackle Bennie Logan (18) reaches for Ole Miss Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace (14) during the second half at Tiger Stadium. LSU defeated Ole Miss 41-35. Photo Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports
LSU Tigers defensive tackle Bennie Logan (18) reaches for Ole Miss Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace (14) during the second half at Tiger Stadium. LSU defeated Ole Miss 41-35. Photo Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

Ole Miss Rebels: Team Overview

 

Returning Offensive Starters: 8 (SE, WR, LT, LG, C, RT, QB, RB)

Returning Defensive Starters: 7 (RDE, LDE, MLB, WLB, LCB, SS, FS)

Returning Specialists: 1 (P)

 

Projected Overall Record: 8-4 (UA, LSU, UTex, TAM)

Projected SEC Record: 5-3 (UA, LSU, TAM)

Projected SEC West Record: 3-3 (UA, LSU, TAM)

 

Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Av Defensive Line: Fr

Running Backs: Av Linebackers: Vg

Wide Receivers: Vg Defensive Backs: Fr

Offensive Line: Fr Special Teams: Av

 

Predicted to struggle in Hugh Freeze’s first season, Ole Miss instead surprised many by going 6-6 in the regular season and then knocking off Pitt decisively in the BBVA Compass Bowl to finish with a winning record. Ole Miss will sneak up on no one this year, particularly in light of a recruiting class that drew a mixture of disbelief and scrutiny from anyone who wasn’t a diehard Rebel fan. Ole Miss gets most of its offense back, but there are questions on defense and possibly in the kicking game.

 

OFFENSE

The Rebels run a one-back, no-huddle spread attack designed to confuse and exhaust defenses. The Rebels will have a solid collection of skill-position talent and a decent situation at quarterback, but the offensive line must get more consistent. With a year’s worth of tape to deconstruct, opposing coaches are hoping to get the jump on Freeze’s spread attack.

 

QUARTERBACKS

Bo Wallace looked, at times, like a top-tier SEC quarterback, and at other times, like a high-schooler in 2012. Wallace threw for nearly 3,000 yards and more than 20 touchdowns, but also racked up 17 interceptions and at times, gave games away or short-circuited comeback attempts. Ole Miss needs a better performance from him in all facets of the game. Wallace is tough, has surprising mobility and decent arm strength, but needs to make better decisions regarding throwing into coverage. Wallace was a surprise, to some, as Freeze’s pick for starter over West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti. Brunetti is back to lend depth to the position. He’s more mobile than Wallace but doesn’t have Wallace’s arm strength. Behind him is Maikhall Miller, who many believe has a bright future ahead of him. If Wallace can cut down on his mistakes, this can be a solid group. The biggest question is whether Wallace, who had shoulder surgery over last winter, will be 100 percent for the year.

 

RUNNING BACKS

Jeff Scott is scarcely 170 pounds, but Ole Miss found a way to make him effective at times in 2012. Scott’s per-carry average was just 4.3 yards for the season, however, owing to his issues running inside. Ole Miss’ next three leading rushers were all quarterbacks, which points to a depth issue. Scott’s top backup figures to either be true freshman Mark Dodson Jr. or sophomore I’Tavius Mathers. Mathers is nursing a leg injury at the moment and might not be ready for the beginning of the season. Neither Mathers nor Dodson are particularly big, but both are bigger than Jaylen Walton, who is smaller than Scott. Ole Miss has a total of one running back on the roster bigger than 200 pounds, true freshman Jordan Wilkins. The team also has no pure fullbacks, but both Justin Bigham and Nicholas Parker can play a hybrid H-back in a pinch. Ole Miss has completely sold out to the spread system with this strategy.

 

WIDE RECEIVERS

The Rebels finally began to develop their wide receiver corps under Freeze, and most return for this year. Donte Moncrief became one of the top-tier SEC receivers, catching nearly 1,000 yards worth of passes and scoring 10 touchdowns in 2012. He’s got good thickness, above-average speed and good hands. Vince Sanders and Ja-Mes Logan are the other two likely starters, but with true freshman Laquon Treadwell on the team, it could be a matter of time before he ascends the depth chart. All three have good length and speed. Underrated Cody Core will back up Moncrief, while slot receiver Korvic Neat can be a weapon in certain packages. Another true freshman, Quincy Adeboyelo, may find early playing time. Ole Miss has a hole at tight end, however, with little-used senior Jack Nuismer battling true freshman Christian Morgan for the job. Morgan is currently slowed with a knee injury. Depth is non-existent.

 

OFFENSIVE LINE

Four starters return, and Ole Miss hit a homerun on Signing Day with the addition of Laremy Tunsil, who figures to fight for a starting position somewhere. Tunsil is a pure left tackle, but Ole Miss returns both tackles from 2012, Emmanuel McCray on the left and Pierce Burton on the right. One of them could move to right guard, where senior utilityman Patrick Junen came out of spring practice holding the job. Evan Swindall will have center locked down, while junior Aaron Morris is expected to get the call at left guard. Ole Miss has depth inside with sophomore Justin Bell and huge senior Jared Duke, but Tunsil is the best option among the reserve tackles at the moment. The Rebels also lack a reliable back-up center, who must be identified in camp.

 

DEFENSE

The Rebels moved to a 4-2-5 in 2012, and while it didn’t send Ole Miss to the top of the heap, it did stabilize a unit that had been downright awful in recent seasons. There still isn’t enough talent across the board to be dominating, but the Rebels are solid at linebacker and have good experience in the secondary. Consistency is the biggest issue up front and in back.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE

The Rebels figure to be solid off the corners, where returning starters C.J. Johnson and Cameron Whigham return. Johnson, a converted linebacker, is small for a defensive end but plays with a high motor and has a good first step. Whigham’s position is in dire jeopardy thanks to the addition of Robert Nkemdiche in recruiting. Many expect Nkemdiche to be a Jadeveon Clowney clone at some point, and if he is, Whigham will probably go back to a reserve role. Channing Ward will add depth. Whoever starts outside will have to cover for some inexperience up the middle. Isaac Gross is Ole Miss’ most effective defensive tackle, but he weighs only 250 pounds and will get moved around by better offensive lines. JUCO transfer Lavon Hooks will likely grab the other starting position. Former reserves Woodrow Hamilton and Bryon Bennett are their main competition for the jobs. Carlton Martin will add depth inside, while Walker Sturgeon is available at end. Aside from the fanfare over Nkemdiche, Ole Miss actually didn’t do so well in recruiting, numbers-wise, and there are many players yet to prove themselves.

 

LINEBACKERS

Ole Miss will start only two of them, but they’re both solid. Mike Marry did a good job at middle linebacker in the new 4-2-5 scheme, and is a sure tackler who can stick his nose in the pile on rushing plays. But the real story was Denzel Nkemdiche, Robert’s brother, who barely tips 200 pounds yet made play after play as a Will linebacker. Nkemdiche was the best of several SEC linebackers, including Arkansas’ Jerico Nelson and Auburn’s Daren Bates, at being a hybrid safety/linebacker. He plays smart, sniffs out plays and is a weapon in coverage. Ole Miss also has experience behind the starts in the form of D.T. Shackelford and Serderius Bryant. Freshmen Temario Strong and Rashawn Smith are among the names who will fill out the depth chart. Marry and Nkemdiche could play, even start for several SEC contenders.

 

DEFENSIVE BACKS

There’s plenty of experience back here, but given prior performances, plenty of question marks as well. Free safety Cody Prewitt and cornerback Charles Sawyer are probably the two best of the bunch, but both still have their bad days. Strong safety Trae Elston is fearless, but was frequently out of position in 2012 and also needs to watch his tackling technique. The new starters will make the coaches nervous. Mike Hilton left spring the presumptive starter at the Star position, but true freshman Antonio Carter could steal it from him before the start of the season. The cornerback position opposite Sawyer is, for now, an outright liability. Senquez Golson is basically the only option, and he has been a disappointment so far. Ole Miss was ready to welcome back Nick Brassell to the team, but he failed to qualify, leaving only Anthony Standifer as a viable option at cornerback off the bench. Chief Brown is an able reserve safety, but backup strong safety Quintavius Burdette needs to add size. True freshman David Kamara might find a role somewhere. Senior Brishen Matthews, once a starter, fell all the way to third team after spring, as did Dehendret Collins.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Perhaps the weirdest thing Hugh Freeze did as a rookie coach was redshirt senior kicker Andrew Ritter and punter Tyler Campbell prior to the 2012 season. It was strange, but it assured him of quality players at those positions for 2013, especially Campbell at punter. Campbell should find himself at or near the top of the leaderboard in the SEC once the season has concluded. Ritter isn’t such a sure bet; he was the kickoff specialist prior to being redshirted and doesn’t have much experience under pressure. There are several other kickers on the team if Ritter can’t handle the load. Ole Miss has plenty of options at the return positions, including Jeff Scott and Korvic Neat, along with any number of signees.

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