Ole Miss Rebels
Projected record: 8-4 (UA, LSU, AU, TAM); 4-4 and 4th SEC West
Returning offensive starters: 9 (SE, FL, WR, LT, LG, C, RT, TE, QB)
Returning defensive starters: 4 (RDT, LDT, LCB, SS)
Returning specialists: 0
QB: Vg DL: Fr
RB: Fr LB: Pr
WR: Ex DB: Av
OL: Vg ST: Pr
Overview: Offensively, this preview reads almost exactly like the one of last year’s team. Defensively … well, let’s just say it’s a good thing the Rebels will have a good offense. The Hugh Freeze era is slowly transitioning out in Oxford and once gone, the Rebels look like they’ll be headed for the bottom of the division again. But there is enough talent to win here in 2018, or at very least, make a lot of better teams uncomfortable.
Offensive breakdown: It’s debatable who was the better quarterback for Ole Miss in 2017, the pre-injury Shea Patterson or the post-Patterson-injury Jordan Ta’amu. Patterson has left for Michigan now, leaving behind a quarterback who came out of nowhere to throw for nearly 1,700 yards and three times as many touchdowns as interceptions down the 2017 stretch. Ta’amu showed a veteran’s poise, and he displayed both good vision downfield and the ability to make defenses have to respect his running ability. Ta’amu’s primary backup is light on experience, but long on talent. Freshman Matt Corral looks to be more than advertised, a potential playmaker for years to come. But the good news ends there. Jacob Cendoya, another true freshman, decided late after the recruiting process was over to attend Ole Miss rather than walk on at Tennessee. Two other walk-ons are all the Rebels have to choose from. Ta’amu tends to draw contact as part of his game, so there will be a lot of breath-holding on the part of Rebel coaches this fall.
As for the supporting cast, A.J. Brown, DeMarkus Lodge and D.K. Metcalf all return to the receiver corps, which more than makes up for Van Jefferson transferring to Florida. Brown may be the best receiver in the SEC heading into 2018, a sort of second coming of LSU’s Josh Reed in terms of build. He’s not the tallest receiver out there, but at nearly 230 pounds, he has a physical presence most receivers lack. The drop-off between first and second units, though, is clear. Sophomore Braylon Sanders is probably the best of that group, while little-used seniors Floyd Allen and Alex Weber and a freshman, DeMarcus Gregory, are really the only other choices. Dawson Knox returns at tight end, and given he’s a former walk-on, his 2017 production was nothing short of phenomenal.
It’s a different ballgame at running back, though, where presumptive starter D’Vaughn Pennamon is out with a knee injury. That will leave Scottie Phillips, a JUCO transfer with a decent resume, and oft-injured Eric Swinney as the top choices. Converted safety Armani Linton and special team regular D.K. Buford are the candidates to round out the top group. Swinney could be helpful, if his many injuries have left anything in the tank. Pennamon injured his knee in a regular-season game in 2017 and for his recovery to be taking this long suggests he won’t be the same guy when he finally returns.
At least there are no question marks on the offensive line, provided the starters stay healthy. Sean Rawlings is a top-flight center, and left tackle Greg Little has NFL teams salivating. Javon Patterson returns at left guard and Alex Givens at right tackle. The new starter, right guard Jordan Sims, has plenty of past experience. The big issue is depth, where freshman Ben Brown is the only one of the younger players considered a future star. Royce Newman and Eli Johnson are really the only other linemen the coaches trust at this point. Everything is fine unless depth becomes part of the equation, but it wouldn’t take long for it all to go south if it does.
Defensive/ST breakdown: Only four starters returns from a defense that was already one of the most overmatched in the SEC, if not all of college football. The middle of the defensive line is the only part of the defense that still gets people’s attention. Benito Jones and Josiah Coatney are solid players, although Jones was supposed to be more productive than he’s proven to be. Austrian Robinson and Ross Donelly are good for a few snaps a game as their backups. No one knows how the new ends, Victor Evans and Qaadir Sheppard, will hold up over a full season, but both players are about 20-30 pounds smaller than ideal SEC size as is. Robinson might slide out to end as a result, especially on rushing downs. That leaves Ryder Anderson and Brenden Williams are the only pure ends on the roster. Robinson will almost certainly have to concentrate on tackle early in the year, as Sincere David is nursing a knee injury and might not be ready to go at the start of the year.
The linebacker group may be the worst overall at any Power 5 school. Detric Bing-Dukes has the size for middle linebacker but not the athleticism or the consistency. The weakside position is a fight between Mohammed Sanogo, Willie Hibbler and Josh Clarke, and none of the three is going to threaten any all-star lists. It will only get tougher for this group given the loss of quality players in front of them at defensive end.
The secondary ought to get a medal for putting up even mediocre numbers in 2017, given how little help they got from the players in front of them. Cornerback Myles Hartsfield and strong safety Zedrick Woods return as starters, and the off-corner spot looks to be a fight between two experienced seniors, Ken Webster and Javien Hamilton. Journeymen Jaylon Jones and C.J. Moore appear to be the battle at free safety, although Jones could also play corner. C.J. Miller and true freshman Kam White add depth. Hamilton might begin the season playing sparingly due to an injury he aggravated in fall camp.
Two walk-ons led the kicking battle in the spring, placekicker Luke Logan and punter Mac Brown. A pair of JUCO transfers, kicker Patrick Nasiatka and punter Spencer Cole, are there if Logan or Brown falters. Logan’s range and accuracy are of particular concern.
Overall Trend: Down. In the short term, Ole Miss should continue to be dangerous, especially on offense. The Rebels will no doubt outscore a bunch of teams in 2018 and might pull an upset or two. But the defense is a sieve, and special teams aren’t going to be good enough to dig the Rebels out of holes. There are several positions even now where the starters are just as good as those found at Georgia or Alabama, but the backups wouldn’t even make the travel roster at those two schools. Still, the ability of Ta’amu and that receiver corps to take over games can’t be completely discounted.
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