Previews 2015: Ole Miss Rebels

Nov 29, 2014; Oxford, MS, USA; Mississippi Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze leads the Mississippi Rebels onto the field before the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 29, 2014; Oxford, MS, USA; Mississippi Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze leads the Mississippi Rebels onto the field before the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Previews 2015: Ole Miss Rebels

Returning Offensive Starters: 9 (SE, FL, LT, LG, C, RG, RT, TE, RB)

Returning Defensive Starters: 7 (NT, DT, LDE, MLB, ROV, FS, SS)

Returning Specialists: 2 (PK, P)

Projected Overall Record: 9-3 (UA, AU, MSU)

Projected SEC Record: 5-3 (UA, AU, MSU)

Projected SEC West Record: 3-3 (UA, AU, MSU)

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

Quarterbacks: Fr Defensive Line: Vg

Running Backs: Fr Linebackers: Vg

Wide Receivers: Vg Defensive Backs: Vg

Offensive Line: Vg Special Teams: Vg

Relative to talent, there has probably not been a team fall short of expectations as spectacularly as Ole Miss has done it over the past couple of years. Ole Miss lost two of its last three games in 2014 by a combined score of 72-3, failing to achieve offensive balance or take advantage of several packed recruiting classes. The window isn’t closing yet for Ole Miss, but uncertainty in the offensive backfield makes the Rebels vulnerable. Most of the uncertainty, though, falls back to a coaching staff that is starting to take some heat for its choices.

OFFENSE

Ole Miss runs a spread offense not unlike Auburn’s hurry-up, no-huddle, but the Rebels don’t even pretend to want to run the football. The Rebels lack size in the backfield and, depending on who wins the quarterback battle, might not have any speed at that position, either. A solid offensive line and talented receiver corps, though, make up for a lot. Either way, Ole Miss must improve upon its ranking of 73rd in rushing offense and 67th in scoring offense if it wants to contend for a division title.

QUARTERBACKS
JUCO transfer Chad Kelly exited spring as the odds-on favorite to win the job, but Ole Miss will have to keep him on a short leash. Kelly already washed out of Clemson for bad behavior, then managed to find himself in more off-field trouble over the offseason. If he can stay clean, Kelly has a strong arm and decent mobility and could provide enough of a spark to elevate the Rebels beyond where former starter Bo Wallace could take them. But if Kelly’s maturity is still an issue, the Rebels will need, sooner or later, contributions from either DeVante Kincade or Ryan Buchanan. Buchanan is a more prototypical, drop-back passer, while Kincade is a true running threat but lacks polish as a thrower. Walk-on Drew Davis adds depth. Both Kincade and Buchanan struggled at the end of the 2014 season, and many believe Kelly is the only true option. Signee Jason Pellerin may find his way into the mix if Kelly stumbles.

RUNNING BACKS

One of the great mysteries is why the Hugh Freeze staff continues to try to run almost its entire running game through scatbacks like Jaylen Walton. Walton is 5’7”, 160 pounds and can’t take the pounding inside that SEC defenses can deliver. Walton averaged 5.5 yards per carry in 2014, but much of that came on “gotcha” plays or when used as a distraction. When Ole Miss absolutely had to run the football, it simply couldn’t. Jordan Wilkins is a better option and averaged nearly 7 yards per carry, but Akeem Judd made a move in the spring and appears to be in line for the backup job. He is the heaviest Ole Miss back at around 220 pounds. Another scatback, Eric Swinney, could find his way into the conversation. Ole Miss not only doesn’t use a fullback in any of its base sets, there isn’t even a situational player on the roster who can play the position. This one will come down to whether Wilkins or Judd can move the needle in short-yardage situations.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Provided Laquon Treadwell suffers no long-term effects from an ugly leg injury sustained against Auburn, Ole Miss should have a solid receiver corps. Treadwell’s physical nature and ability to high-point the football made him a tough cover for any cornerback last year, and no one can question his guts. The key is the supporting cast. Cody Core is one of the most underrated receivers in the conference, and while he isn’t dominating, he’s a tough matchup and a reliable target. The slot receiver position, likely to fall to either Markell Pack, Quincy Adeboyejo or signee DeMarkus Lodge, is the key to making it all work. Pack didn’t come on as quickly as many hoped he would, while Adeboyejo disappears at times. Lodge, who is cut from the Treadwell mold, could end up being the go-to third option. Damore’ea Stringfellow and signee Van Jefferson are next in line, while Collins Moore adds a veteran presence. The tight end position is in the capable hands of Evan Engram, but Engram is much more a receiver than he is a blocker. As with the running back group, Ole Miss lacks any bulk whatsoever at the position, with only walk-on Ty Quick being over the 235-pound mark. Engram will be backed up primarily by Sammie Epps and a collection of walk-ons that includes Quick, Taz Zettergren and Matt Brown. Signee Willie Hibbler could get into the mix. Jeremy Liggins, who played quarterback last year at more than 300 pounds, could have a role here as a situational player.

OFFENSIVE LINE

If Ole Miss can’t put together something on the offensive line in 2015, at least one coach needs to be fired. The Rebels didn’t play to potential in 2014, but they return all five starters in 2015 and four are seniors. The fifth, left tackle Laremy Tunsil, may not be available at the beginning of the year. Tunsil was involved in an off-field incident that, depending on which media outlet was doing the reporting, involves potential eligibility issues. While the situation continues to work itself out, Ole Miss will ready right tackle Fahn Cooper, guards Justin Bell and Aaron Morris and center Ben Still. If Tunsil is out for any length of time, though, this unit drops a few notches. Christian Morris or converted quarterback/tight end Jeremy Liggins would be the next names up. Inside, Rod Taylor, Jordan Sims and Robert Conyers offer depth at guard and center. Javon Patterson, a signee, could end up with a role as well. If all is well with Tunsil, Ole Miss will be fine. If this becomes an issue that lasts through the season, however, the Rebels might be in trouble. Because in addition to figuring out what the story really is in regards to Tunsil, Ole Miss simply needs to improve over its 2014 effort, especially in the running game.

DEFENSE

The Rebels will base from a 4-2-5 look, which is becoming more common in these days of the spread offense. Ole Miss’ rush defense was acceptable last year, but not dominating. Where the Rebels really made their hay was in the passing game, where they ranked 16th in the nation on the way to leading the country in scoring defense at 16.0 points per game. Expect more of the same in 2015, as the cornerback position is really the only one of any concern.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Robert Nkemdiche has been more flash than substance so far, but he’s been good enough to suggest his recruiting hype wasn’t just empty words. Together with stout nosetackle Issac Gross, the Rebels are a tough matchup inside. Gross provides the gruntwork, while Nkemdiche is free to go after quarterbacks from his tackle position. What he lacks is the ability to go heads-up against the double team in the running game, which has forced Ole Miss to get creative in its substitution patterns. D.J. Jones and Woodrow Hamilton will be used to supplement the run defense and give Nkemdiche the occasional breather. Fadol Brown returns at the strongside end position, leaving either Marquis Haynes or Victor Evans to man the weakside position. Depth is a bit of concern at end, where the Rebels might have to work a three-man rotation unless John Youngblood can up his game. Channing Ward is also a possibility if he can finally put it all together, while Breeland Speaks adds depth at tackle.

LINEBACKERS

There are only two in the Rebels’ base defense, but they’re good ones. C.J. Johnson will start at middle linebacker and also occasionally play defensive end. Denzel Nkemdiche is an undersized gnat, but he plays smart and frustrates running backs and tight ends. Senior Christian Russell gives Ole Miss a veteran off the bench behind Johnson, while sophomore DeMarquis Gates will spell Nkemdiche. Injuries could be particularly damaging here, though, as Russell lacks explosiveness and Gates doesn’t have enough experience yet. The Rebels didn’t exactly blow the doors off in recruiting at this position, either. Shawn Curtis is probably the most ready to play of the newbies, while holdovers Ray Ray Smith and Temario Strong appear to be closer to seeing playing time.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

The safety trio of Tony Conner, Mike Hilton and Trae Elston are practically without peer in the SEC, or perhaps even the country. Conner is a rare combination of hitting power and ballhawking skills, while Elston makes a living off baiting quarterbacks into bad decisions. The challenge for Ole Miss in 2015 is to get the cornerback positions right. Tony Bridges and Tee Shepard have solid measurables, but Bridges was playing JUCO ball last year and Shepard is coming off a foot injury that cost him his entire 2014 season. Kendarius Webster, Kailo Moore and signee Cameron Ordway are the best bets to challenge the two new starters. C.J. Moore and C.J. Hampton will be in the rotation as reserve safeties. If opposing teams are looking to exploit a weakness on the Ole Miss team, this position group isn’t it.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Gary Wunderlich didn’t attempt many field goals in 2015, but he showed competency at the job and should be fine in 2015. Punter Will Gleeson quietly became one of the more dependable SEC punters as the season rolled along. Ole Miss hasn’t had the best special teams under Hugh Freeze, but at least the two kicking positions should be solid. Jaylen Walton will handle much of the return game, and there are plenty of choices to go along with him, including Markell Pack. Ole Miss needs to get more consistent in kick coverage, and the Rebels must also replace their long-snapper.

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