Ole Miss Rebels
August 20, 2017
by Jess Nicholas, TideFans Editor-in-Chief
Overview: Ole Miss might be facing a potentially devastating decision from the NCAA regarding the alleged actions of the school and former coach Hugh Freeze, but the team that will take the field in 2017 is no pushover. If Freeze is guilty of recruiting violations, it stands to reason he leaves behind a team stocked deep with talent – and that’s exactly the case. Matt Luke steps into his first major head coaching role, and he’ll have to manage the spirit of a team that could be forced out of a bowl game by NCAA rule enforcers before the season ends. He’ll have plenty of help between the lines, though.
Projected record: 8-4 (UA, LSU, FSU, TAM); 4-4 and 6th SEC West
Returning offensive starters: 5 (WR, RT, LG, C, RG)
Returning defensive starters: 6 (RDE, LDT, SLB, RCB, LCB, FS)
Returning specialists: 2 (PK, P)
QB: Vg DL: Vg
RB: Fr LB: Av
WR: Vg DB: Vg
OL: Vg ST: Ex
Offensive breakdown: This is a team that could easily exceed its offensive performance of a year ago – and needs to do so on the ground, where the Rebels ranked a horrid 95th overall and put too much pressure on QB Chad Kelly as a result. Kelly is gone to the NFL now, leaving the ultra-talented Shea Patterson behind. Patterson was a recruit everyone wanted, and may have a second chance to get if the Rebels are victims of a multi-year bowl ban.
For now, Ole Miss should enjoy his talents, both as a runner and a passer. He’s a better runner than Kelly, and should prove to be no worse than Kelly’s equal as a passer in the long run. JUCO transfer Jordan Ta’amu is expected to be the backup; like Patterson, Ta’amu is also a dual-threat QB. Jason Pellerin, who is being tried at tight end just to get his athletic ability on the field, could also play the QB position if needed.
The receiver corps figures to help greatly both young quarterbacks. Van Jefferson was invaluable as a possession receiver in 2016. He’s flanked by A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf, inexperienced players but ones who displayed immense potential in spring drills. Veterans Trey Bledsoe, Markell Pack and DeMarkus Lodge will continue to compete for starting roles, and they form up one of the most experienced second groups in the SEC. The tight end position is a concern, though, as no one looks close to being what Ole Miss had last year in Evan Engram. Octavious Cooley, Jason Pellerin and walk-on Dawson Knox are the main competitors for the job. Cooley and Knox are more traditional, blocking-first tight ends, while Pellerin would be the closest thing to Engram Ole Miss probably has.
Also of concern is the running back group, where Eric Swinney, Jordan Wilkins and Eugene Brazley will try to do what Akeem Judd never could seem to do, and that’s become a true feature back in SEC play. Wilkins looked like the most likely guy to step forward prior to 2016, but missed the season with academic issues. D’Vaughn Pennamon certainly has the size for the job but has yet to establish himself. Ole Miss almost totally whiffed on this position in recruiting, signing only a red-chip scatback named Isaiah Woullard.
At least the offensive line is in good shape. Greg Little’s emergence ought to give Ole Miss the ability to shift Rod Taylor to right tackle full-time. The interior group of center Sean Rawlings and guards Javon Patterson and Jordan Sims are all solid, high-level players. The one issue is depth, as Daronte Bouldin is the only upperclassman reserve with any experience. Alex Givens figures to be the swing tackle if Taylor beats him out. The rest will have to come from a freshman pool that isn’t quite as highly-ranked as previous classes. As long as Ole Miss stays reasonably healthy, the Rebels should be fine here.
Defensive/ST breakdown: There isn’t quite as much star power in the front seven as in recent years, but there is enough veteran leadership along the defensive line that Ole Miss won’t completely fall apart. The biggest issue is improving upon a rush defense that completely disintegrated in 2016, finishing ranked 120th in the country. That directly led to the Rebels being ranked 100th in scoring defense and 111th in total defense. It was a mess. Marquis Haynes will be looked at to have a stabilizing influence at defensive end, while Breeland Speaks must get back to playing tackle at the level he had shown prior to 2016. Benito Jones will get the other tackle spot, and should be fine.
The issues are the strongside end position, where Victor Evans has a tenuous hold on the spot ahead of Syracuse transfer Qaadir Sheppard and top freshman Charles Wiley, and depth at tackle. Ross Donelly needs to play like a starter even though he isn’t one. The other reserve tackle spot is completely up for grabs.
DeMarquis Gates and Detric Bing-Dukes will head up the linebacker corps, with Brenden Williams and Donta Evans being looked to for early contributions. Gates is the only one with proven playmaking ability, and Williams might not be ready to contribute yet. The third spot will feature another freshman, Breon Dixon, and senior A.J. Moore, but both players are listed with the defensive back group on the roster, as the position is more akin to a rover safety. The pass defense actually was functional in 2016, so Ole Miss is hoping for more of the same. Jalen Julius, Ken Webster and Myles Hartsfield will split the cornerback duties, while Zedrick Woods, C.J. Hampton, C.J. Moore and Deontay Anderson will handle safety. This is a deep unit with good athleticism throughout.
Ole Miss should have the kicking game locked in. Gary Wunderlich will be a Groza Award competitor at placekicker, and might also punt. If he doesn’t, Will Gleeson is more than capable of handling the punter’s job. The return units will be mostly new, but Ole Miss isn’t lacking for athletes right now. Not yet, anyway.
Overall Trend: Sideways. Keep in mind this is, first and foremost, in comparison to where the Rebels finished 2016. Ole Miss should make a bowl in 2017 unless Matt Luke isn’t competent in his new role, but the long-term health of the program is definitely on a downward trend. All signs point to the NCAA making a statement about Ole Miss’ compliance issues, especially given how both the university and Freeze took an adversarial stance with the NCAA almost from day one. In the short-term, however, this is a talented, dangerous team that can score from all over the field, anytime. If the defense can improve a bit, Ole Miss has an outside chance at finishing second in the SEC West.
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