Looking to rebound from a 5-7 campaign in 2016, the Ole Miss Rebels take the field on Saturday to take on the South Alabama Jaguars. As the Rebels look to take pressure off the shoulders of sophomore QB Shea Patterson, a consistent ground game could go a long way. Ole Miss ranked 103rd in the country last season in terms of total rushing yards with just under 1,800 yards.
The return of senior RB Jordan Wilkins may be just what the Rebel running game needed. Wilkins will get the start on Saturday after missing the 2016 season. An injury kept him out of fall camp for a few days, but Wilkins has shown the ability to be productive during his time in a Rebel uniform.
This will be Wilkins’ first chance to anchor the Rebel backfield, but the Memphis native totaled 379 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2015 while splitting reps with Jaylon Walton and Akeem Judd. Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke is happy to have Wilkins back but is also looking forward to seeing his other backs make an impact. During Monday’s press conference, Luke mentioned that up to four backs might see the field this weekend.
“Jordan Wilkins will be the starter, and D’Vaughn Pennamon has had a really good fall camp. In both the scrimmages he has been in when Jordan has been out, he has really stepped up and done a good job. You could see for sure Eric Swinney and Eugene Brazley, and potentially D.K. Buford, but Wilkins and Pennamon are leading the way there.”
New offensive coordinator Phil Longo has enjoyed the spirited competition among the backs during practice and is anxiously awaiting the chance to see them compete on Saturday. Longo echoed Luke’s comments about Wilkins and the rest of the backs.
“The [running backs] are the group that I am interested in watching compete on Saturday. Jordan is by far the number one guy,” Longo explained. “That’s no disrespect to the other four, they have competed heavily. Pennamon has separated himself a little bit in August camp, he’s probably the true number two right now, and you’ll certainly see him on Saturday. They all have a role, and I think, if they’re healthy, wouldn’t be surprised if you saw a little bit of each of them.”
In Longo’s air raid style offense, the running game may not be the focus, but he knows that adjustments have to be made during the course of a game.
“The principals of the air raid offense is to chase space, and that is by far, 100 percent what we do in the passing game. We have just taken the same philosophy and added it to our run game,” Longo said. “If you are going to win a football game, there are times where you have to establish the run game.”
You can’t have a successful running game without a solid offensive line, and Luke talked about the depth on the line. An emphasis will be placed on keeping fresh legs in the game, and a combination of up to eight different linemen may be used on Saturday.
“You’re going to see a three-way tackle rotation with Alex Givens, Rod Taylor, and Greg Little, trying to keep those guys fresh,” Luke said. “And with Jordan Sims, Daronte Bouldin and Javon Patterson, you’ll see those guys rotate in as well.”
Longo added, “We feel like we have eight guys that can play, so eight guys will be in that rotation. They have met the standard to start or play and contribute for us on Saturday. Some will play more than others, but we want to play all eight to help us win the war of attrition, it helps us keep some guys fresh.”
Akeem Judd led the Rebels in rushing in 2016 with 826 yards with Brazley as a compliment back contributing 261 yards. With Wilkins as an all-around back, Brazley’s speed and Pennamon’s power, Ole Miss has the potential to surprise defenses with a capable backfield. Catching the ball out the backfield will also be a factor for these backs as they look to find ways to get on the field in 2017.
Kick-off for Saturday’s game is set for 6:30 p.m. central time at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Steven Gagliano is the managing editor for HottyToddy.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.