Now that the 2014 season and 2015 National Signing Day are in the books, Ole Miss football fans’ sights turn to spring practice and the annual Grove Bowl. As always, there are a lot of position battles, return to play scenarios and ever-changing storylines to follow. What is different, however, is this season holds tremendous potential and lofty expectations for the boys in red and blue.
Now that three-year starter Bo Wallace has graduated, the Rebels will look for a new face to emerge under center. Head coach Hugh Freeze returns redshirt sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade, and redshirt freshman Kendrick Doss. Add true freshman Jason Pellerin and junior college transfer Chad Kelly to the fold and there is a going to be a heated competition for the signal caller spot. Pellerin will not be with the team until the summer and there is speculation that Doss could be switching positions given the allotment of quarterbacks on the roster. That leaves Buchanan, Kincade and Kelly as the most likely options. Those three will be duking it out all offseason and we probably won’t know whom the starter will be until August so buckle up.
How will the Transfers Adjust?
Aside from Kelly, the Rebels welcome a slew of transfers into the mix. Offensive tackle Christian Morris was extremely limited in 2014 with injuries, but the former UCLA Bruin figures to be more of a factor now that he has a full offseason to prepare. Another player that didn’t see the field due to injury was cornerback Tee Shepard, a Notre Dame and junior college transfer, but a lot is expected from the potential star in the secondary. The tales of Damore’ea Stringfellow’s playmaking on the scout team is well documented and the coaches hope the Washington transfer can make an immediate impact at wide receiver. Add in junior college standouts like DB Tony Bridges, linebacker Terry Caldwell and defensive tackle D.J. Jones and the Rebels are stacked with talented transfers.
Replacing All-Americans in the Secondary
It is no secret that Ole Miss lost two valuable pieces in the secondary with the graduations of cornerback Senquez Golson and safety Cody Prewitt, both first-team All-Americans. Luckily, they return seniors Mike Hilton and Trae Elston along with junior sensation Tony Conner. Bridges and Shepard offer very high upside with their size, 6’2 and 6’1 respectively, and their versatility to play either corner or safety. “TnT” as they’ve been dubbed, could make the secondary even better than last year’s stellar unit. Don’t discount senior safety Chief Brown, and sophomore studs Kendarius Webster and C.J. Hampton, from making an impact either.
The Rebels lose middle linebacker D.T. Shackleford and stingers, Serderius Bryant and Keith Lewis, from last year. That leaves Christian Russell and Denzel Nkemdiche as the only linebackers on the roster with significant playing time. DeMarquis Gates, Ray Ray Smith and Temario Strong figure to offer depth at middle linebacker, with Tayler Polk and Terry Caldwell backing up Nkemdiche. The most interesting note about the unit will be if redshirt senior C.J. Johnson makes the move to middle linebacker. Johnson was a five-star linebacker in high school and is seen by many NFL scouts as more of a fit for that position rather than the defensive end spot he’s held since coming to Oxford. There will be a lot of moving parts at these two positions before the team starts play this fall.
How will the Running Back Touches be Distributed?
Despite the transfers of Mark Dodson and I’Tavius Mathers, there is still a bit of a logjam at running back. Ole Miss returns Egg Bowl star Jaylen Walton, redshirt sophomores Jordan Wilkins and Eugene Brazley, redshirt junior Akeem Judd and will add true freshman Eric Swinney this summer. The running game lagged behind last year but there is certainly enough talent there. It will be interesting to see who gets the majority of the touches and how Freeze intends to use his stable of backs.
Who Emerges as the New Leaders?
Last season’s team was fortunate to have senior leaders like Shackleford, Wallace, Prewitt and Golson, but all four of them have exhausted their eligibility. This year’s team is not without seniors as guys like Johnson, Denzel Nkemdiche, and Aaron Morris are among those that have been with the program since Houston Nutt was still the coach. Junior stars like Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell, Conner, Evan Engram and Laremy Tunsil could also find new locker room presence, as does a natural leader position like middle linebacker quarterback. Every great team has leadership on both sides of the ball, on the practice field, in the locker room and off the field. Ole Miss will need some new guys to step up and we should be seeing who they are soon.
HottyToddy.com staff report