Previews 2016: Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Texas A&M

by Jess Nicholas
August 22, Editor-in-Chief

Click for Preview: Ole Miss | Mississippi State | Texas A&M | More Previews

Jan 1, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Mississippi Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze prepares to take his team onto the field to play the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the 2016 Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 1, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Mississippi Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze prepares to take his team onto the field to play the Oklahoma Cowboys in the Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY

Ole Miss Rebels

Overview: The offseason has been a turbulent one for Ole Miss, more so the result of an NCAA investigation into violations than anything happening on the field. The Rebels have been effective spoilers under Hugh Freeze, but haven’t shown the mental toughness necessary yet to take the final step and win the division. Now, Ole Miss will have to prove it can take that final step while dealing with off-field distractions and replacing starters at over half the positions on the field.

Projected record: 8-4 (UA, LSU, FSU, TAM); 5-3 and 3rd SEC West
Returning offensive starters: 4 (FL, TE, QB, C)
Returning defensive starters: 6 (RDE, LDE, RCB, LCB, FS, ROV)
Returning specialists: 2 (PK, P)

Unit ratings
QB: Ex DL: Vg
RB: Vg LB: Fr
WR: Vg DB: Ex
OL: Av ST: Vg

Offensive breakdown: Ole Miss developed dynamic balance last year thanks mostly to the presence of at quarterback, who finally gave Freeze an accurate passer who could also stretch the field. Kelly returns in 2016, but most of his supporting cast does not.

The biggest loss may end up being running back Jordan Wilkins, who was declared academically ineligible for at the start of fall camp ( unit rating of “Very Good” for Ole Miss is now no longer accurate as a result). That leaves Akeem Judd as the only proven option, and he netted just 421 yards in 2015. will likely repeat as the team’s second-leading runner. Eric Swinney, Eugene Brazley or signee D’Vaughn Pennamon will likely be Judd’s backup.

The issue of who’ll back Kelly up at quarterback is more of an unknown; Shea Patterson has the most talent of the reserves, but Ole Miss would like to redshirt him. That leaves only Jason Pellerin, also a freshman, as an option, as neither of last year’s backups are still on the team.

The challenge at receiver is to find someone to take the heat off Quincy Adeboyejo. Look for tight end Evan Engram to get an increased workload, especially in the slot. DaMarkus Lodge has plenty of potential but is inconsistent; he’ll likely get the other starting outside receiver position. Damore’ea Stringfellow, Trey Bledsoe and Van Jefferson will battle for the third spot. Markell Pack has been slowed by injury and will likely miss at least part of the season. The one thing going for Ole Miss here is that figures to make even an average receiver look better than he is.

The is going to be an issue early on. Robert Conyers returns from injury at right tackle and one of his replacements from last year, Sean Rawlings, came out of the starting center, but those positions may switch. It looks like Ole Miss will have a true freshman starting at left tackle (Greg Little), but Little has the potential to make that move stick without a lot of downside. The cause for sleepless nights can be found at the guard positions, where Javon Patterson and Jordan Sims are expected to give the Rebels a solid performance. Daronte Bouldin and Rod Taylor are competing there. Given Ole Miss’ issues running inside in recent years, these battles will be watched closely.

Defensive/ST breakdown: A large part of Ole Miss’ success this year may hinge on the performance of Oregon transfer Rommel Mageo at middle linebacker. Ole Miss’ defensive line took a hammer to the gut when jumped to the NFL, and replacing him inside isn’t going to be a simple task.

Having Mageo and DeMarquis Gates, another new starter at Ole Miss’ other LB spot in a 4-2-5 base, come on quickly is no longer an optional ask. Even if Breeland Speaks and Issac Gross have solid seasons at defensive tackle, neither is Nkemdiche. Nkemdiche could take over games by himself, which neither Speaks nor Gross can do. Gross, however, can be a matchup problem for slow-footed guards. D.J. Jones, the team’s best bench tackle, is currently injured, meaning Ross Donelly must step up.

Ole Miss, however, did a good developing ends Marquis Haynes and Fadol Brown in 2015, and both return. Haynes is on the cusp of being an elite pass rusher, while Brown is a solid edge-setter. Like D.J. Jones, though, Brown will begin the season somewhere short of 100-percent healthy, meaning longtime role player John Youngblood has a chance of being overexposed early on.

Ole Miss will continue to start five defensive backs, and health will be the determining factor here. Getting Tony Conner healthy and keeping him that way would go a long way toward Ole Miss’ title hopes, but Conner’s knee injury has been slow to heal. C.J. Hampton and Zedrick Woods came out of leading the other two safety positions. Hampton is the bigger name, but Woods has outplayed him. There’s plenty of experience at corner, where Tony Bridges and Kendarius Webster return, but Bridges needs to get more consistent. Carlos Davis and C.J. Moore figure to get more playing time if injuries continue to be a problem.

The Rebels should be in good shape in the special teams department. Gary Wunderlich can hit from just about anywhere, but he can miss from just about anywhere, too. Still, having a kicker who went 3-of-5 from beyond 40 yards is a good start. He can also punt, and hit for a 46-yard average when he did. Regular starting punter Will Gleeson is accurate, but not really a long hitter and also has the unfortunate tendency to hit returnable kicks at inopportune moments. Ole Miss is expecting improvement in both players. The return game will largely be in new hands this year and improvement over last year’s marks will be sorely needed.

Overall : Down. As strange as it is to say, Ole Miss has the feel of a team slipping back into the middle of the pack. The wild cart is the quarterback, Chad Kelly, and whether he picks the team up and puts it on his shoulders. Defensively, it would be almost impossible to repeat the front seven’s performance from 2015, and the Rebels horribly underachieved in pass defense anyway. There seem to be just too many holes up front on both sides of the ball for the Rebels to be considered contenders for the conference title.

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