Ole Miss Rebels
2015 Record: 10-3 (6-2, SEC West)
2015 Review/Scheme: Despite losing three-year starting QB Bo Wallace and having constant injury issues along the offensive line, the Ole Miss offense was much better in 2015 than in previous year’s under coach Hugh Freeze. Although Freeze is considered a part of the Gus Malzahn coaching tree (Freeze coached under Malzahn at Arkansas State), Freeze’s version of the spread is much more pass heavy. The offense was explosive last year, averaging nearly 41 points per game and 7.1 yards per play, good for fourth in the country.
As stated above, the Rebels is offense is typically a pass-first offense, but Freeze utilizes the HUNH look that Malzahn does. Ole Miss will pass to set up the run and the running game typically consists of zone reads, QB draws, and inside/outside zone runs. Freeze has also been known to break out gadget plays, with everything from reverses, RB passes, and tackle eligible plays in the playbook.
Quarterbacks: Fans of Ole Miss or those who saw the Rebels play in the past knew the term “Good Bo, Bad Bo.” In Bo Wallace’s three years as the starting QB, the Rebels typically had a potent offense, but Wallace also was erratic and inconsistent, going from a great game to a terrible one, sometimes during the game itself. Senior Chad Kelly proved to be an upgrade almost from day one. Kelly (4,042 yards, 65%, 31 TDs, 13 interceptions, 663 yds rushing [sacks removed]) was more accurate than Wallace and cut down on the overall mistakes. Kelly also proved to be more adept at making something happen when the pocket collapsed. Entering this season, Kelly is far and away the best QB in the SEC and even if his numbers do not approach last year’s, he should still be one of the country’s better passers.
Ole Miss fans best hope Kelly stays healthy as last year’s backups, Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade, both transferred out of the program during the offseason. That leaves ballyhooed, five-star true freshman Shea Patterson as the top backup. Patterson enrolled in the spring and drew rave reviews, but chances are Freeze wants to ease the youngster in rather than throw him to the wolves.
Running Backs: The Rebels averaged 183 yards rushing per game last year, but often times the rushing attack faltered against better defenses (Alabama, Vanderbilt, Florida, and Memphis pretty well stuffed the ground game) and Ole Miss really padded their running stats against mediocre competition. This has largely been the case during Freeze’s entire tenure as the Rebels have never really had a great set of running backs and this year is really no different after leading rusher Jaylen Walton graduated. That leaves a two-way battle between senior Akeem Judd and junior Jordan Wilkins for the starting nod. Judd (421 yds, 5.5 average, 3 TDs) was the #3 rusher last year in his first season out of junior college and many expect him to get the bulk of the carries this year. Judd doesn’t necessarily excel at any one thing and isn’t the fastest guy, but he moves the pile and has decent big play ability. Wilkins (379 yds, 5.3 avg, 4 TDs) is a bigger option who isn’t going to wow you, but he knows the offense and provides a slight chance of pace to Judd. Redshirt freshman Eric Swinney and junior Eugene Brazley (222 yds, 10.1 avg, 3 TDs) are options as well, but all indications are that Judd and Wilkins will receive the lion’s share of the carries.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: This is an interesting group because it appears to be talented and deep and yet there are some concerns after the top two receivers, Laquon Treadwell and Cody Core, both exited the program. No offense to Core, but he was a possession receiver who can likely be replaced, but replacing Treadwell is a challenge and will put the Rebels’ recruiting rankings to the test.
That being said, Ole Miss does have a really good trio to build around. The Rebels typically use three WR sets and the outside spots are set with senior Quincy Adeboyejo and junior Damore’ea Stringfellow, both big bodies who finished second and fourth in receptions last year. Adeboyejo (38 receptions, 604 yds, 7 TDs) is a tough matchup at 6-3, 195 and with good speed to boot. Of the receivers who caught more than 20 passes, he finished second in both touchdowns and yards per reception. He’s a big play threat. Stringfellow (36 recs, 503 yds, 5 TDs) is a big body at 6-2, 220 who will likely take over for Core as the main possession receiver. The other returner to build around is tight end Evan Engram, a terrific receiver who has been a starter since he stepped foot on campus. Engram (38 recs, 464 yds, 2 TDs) is not the best blocker, but he’s a serious receiving threat and Freeze loves to send him deep up the seam.
From there, it is a bit more muddled. Although junior Markell Pack (31 recs, 380 yds, 3 TDs) featured in all 13 games last year, many around the program expect redshirt freshman Van Jefferson to take the job in the slot. Jefferson appears to have more upside and he’ll likely be the opening day starter. Senior Derrick Jones, sophomore Damarkus Lodge, and true freshmen D.K. Metcalf, Tre Nixon, and A.J. Brown will likely be top options off the bench beyond Pack. Depth at tight end isn’t quite as rosy and will likely fall to true freshmen Octavious Cooley and Gabe Angel. Cooley is more college-ready in terms of size while Angel is similar to Engram in that he is undersized, but a threat as a receiver.
Offensive Line: Much like FSU’s line last year, the Rebels dealt with lots of turnover in the trenches, dealing with suspensions and injuries throughout the year. The positive to that is despite losing five players with starting experience, they still return six players who have started games so there is some experience to work with here.
There appear to be three spots that are settled heading into fall camp. Senior C Robert Conyers, junior RG Rod Taylor, and sophomore LG Javon Patterson seem to have those spots locked down. Conyers started the first six games last year before being lost to injury. Conyers has never gone a full season as the starter (3 starts in 2014, 6 last year) but he has a wealth of experience and is solid. Taylor has started 4 times thus far in his career and has good size and athleticism. He’ll be pushed by sophomore Jordan Sims, who started 4 times last year, but most expect Taylor to start. Patterson started 6 times as a true freshman last year and has a bright future.
The question marks are at the tackle spots, although the Rebels do not lack for options. Sophomore Sean Rawlings started 7 games last year and made the All-SEC Freshman team, but many expect him to sit on the bench this year behind either true freshman Greg Little or redshirt freshman Alex Givens. Most media who cover Ole Miss seem to think Little and Givens will battle for the LT spot and the loser will end up at RT ahead of Rawlings. One other option is senior Jeremy Liggins, a high school QB who has mostly played TE at Ole Miss. Liggins actually moved to tackle briefly last spring but it did not stick and many who follow the program think he has little chance to start. Still, he has intriguing athleticism and could be in the mix.
2015 Review/Scheme: Although Freeze is an offensive coach, up until last year the Ole Miss resurgence was led largely by coordinator Dave Wommack’s Land Shark defense. The defense actually took a step back last season, giving up nearly 60 more yards per game and 6.6 more points per game than the 2014 unit. The Rebels got after the QB better, but pretty much every other facet of their defense regressed. With four of the top six tacklers gone, there are questions is this unit will be as good as the very strong 2014 unit or if they’ll just be above average like 2013 and last year.
Much like most of the country nowadays, Wommack runs a 4-2-5 defense that utilizes an extra defensive back who will sometimes line up like a LB and other times like a nickel back. Unlike some other teams, though, Wommack is willing to sacrifice size in the front seven (or six) in order to get more speed on the field. The Rebels will often throw exotic zone blitzes at teams and Wommack is not afraid to utilize bump and run coverage on the outside to free up guys to attack the ball.
Defensive Line: Ole Miss had a very deep rotation of linemen last year, but depth will be tested after four of the main rotation players moved in, including talented but oft-troubled tackle Robert Nkemdiche.
The Rebels appear well stocked at defensive end, where starters Fadol Brown and Marquis Haynes return. Brown (32 tackles, 4.5 for loss) isn’t going to make many splash plays, but he does a good job occupying blockers to let others flow to the ball. Haynes (43 tackles, 16.5 for loss, 10 sacks) is grossly undersized at 6-3, 235, but he uses his speed to be disruptive. He reminds me a lot of the smaller ends Virginia Tech often utilizes. The Rebels have decent depth here too. Senior John Youngblood (19 tackles, 1.5 for loss) is a try-hard type that won’t excel as a starter, but is a quality backup. Sophomore Victor Evans (16 tackles, 2 for loss) offers more size behind Haynes. Sophomore Garrald McDowell and true freshman Charles Wiley, who participated in spring ball, add more bodies.
Ole Miss have some options at defensive tackle, but nobody stands out as an elite talent like Nkemdiche and there is less proven depth than at end. Sophomore Breeland Speaks has big-time potential, though, and has one job locked down. Speaks (32 tackles, 5.5 for loss) was a top backup last year and could have a breakout year with his combo of size, strength, and athleticism. The other starting spot is a battle between seniors Isaac Gross and D.J. Jones, a one-time FSU commitment. Gross was limited to one game last year due to injury, but he’s got 27 career tackles for loss and has been a solid contributor every year on campus prior to 2015. He isn’t the biggest guy at 6-1, 265, but he uses quickness to be disruptive. Jones (40 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 4 sacks) started 3 games last year and brings more prototypical size than Gross, but he is also fairly quick and active. I’d expect the duo to rotate a lot no matter who is determined the starter. Depth beyond that has potential, but is largely young and unproven. True freshman Benito Jones enrolled early and is already penciled in as Speaks’ backup. Redshirt freshman Austrian Robinson and sophomore Ross Donnelly are the other main players off the bench.
Linebackers: According to most Ole Miss blogs and fan sites, this appears to be the main area of concern on the defense. Although the Rebels only lost two players who logged significant snaps here, the team is really relying on transfers and freshmen to play big minutes and there is a lot of uncertainty in that.
The one sure thing is junior DeMarquis Gates, who led the team in tackles last year despite only starting 4 games. Gates (76 tackles, 2 for loss) will not provide much in terms of big plays, but he is solid, knows the defense, and rarely makes mistakes. He should be solid. Gates is sliding from MLB, where he played most of the spring, out to OLB, where he played last year, to make room for senior Rommel Mageo, a grad transfer from Oregon State. Mageo started 10 games the past two seasons with the Beavers and is expected to start from day one. His backup will be another transfer, sophomore Detric Bing-Dukes. A one-time Georgia signee, Bing-Dukes transferred to a JUCO last year and is being relied upon to play significant snaps this year with Ole Miss. Senior Terry Caldwell (32 tackles, 2 for loss), himself a former JC transfer, provides more depth at MLB after seeing time last year in the rotation. The depth behind Gates is more questionable, with junior Tayler Polk (14 tackles) and redshirt freshman Willie Hibbler, a former tight end, as the main backups.
Secondary: One of the biggest disappointments about last year’s Land Shark defense was the regression of the defensive backfield. After having one of the country’s best pass defense units in 2014, the secondary gave up a ton of big plays last year. Although the completion percentage allowed stayed about the same, the Rebels went from giving up 192 passing yards per game and 12 touchdowns in 2014 to 259 yards and 23 touchdowns last year. Hope for improvement this season really rests with the CBs as Ole Miss lost a lot at safety.
At corner, Ole Miss returns senior Tony Bridges and junior Kendarious Webster, both starters last year. Bridges (36 tackles, 2 for loss, 3 interceptions, 9 passes broken up) came in from the JC ranks and started 11 games last year. He has a nice mix of size and athleticism and should only improve. Webster (41 tackles, 3 for loss, 11 PBU) is smaller, but he has great ball skills and has the potential to be a bigger version of Senquez Golson. Depth is the concern here. The only experienced backup is senior Carlos Davis (21 tackles, 1.5 for loss), an undersized guy who is solid if unspectacular. Big things are expected of redshirt freshman Jalien Julius, a former high school WR who has nice athleticism.
The situation at safety is more dire after starters Trae Elston and Mike Hilton and backup Chief Brown all graduated. The losses of Elston and Hilton especially sting, as both were productive (140 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, 6 INTs, 27 PBU combined) and strong leaders. Both were the prototypical “glue guys” teams need to succeed. The talent is here, but whether the productivity and leadership emerges is the question. Right now, it appears senior Tony Conner, junior C.J. Hampton, and sophomore Zedrick Woods will be your opening day starters. Conner was a mega-recruit who was limited to 5 games due to injury last year. He has 1st round talent and is a perfect fit for the HUSKY (the Ole Miss version of FSU’s Star position) role. If he stays healthy, he’ll contend for postseason honors. Hampton (27 tackles) started 4 games last year and is the leader for the FS job. He brings nice size to the position and is steady, but could stand to make more big plays. Woods (25 tackles, INT) started 2 games late last year and really began to emerge. The coaching staff thinks Woods may be a breakout candidate.
Options beyond that trio are abundant, but where they play is a bit of a question. True freshman Myles Hartsfield enrolled in the spring and entered fall practice atop the depth chart at SS, ahead of Woods, but most around the program think that was a motivational ploy to get Woods’ attention. Even so, Hartsfield should be a contributor. Junior C.J. Moore (19 tackles, 2 PBU) provides experience and competition at both safety spots. The real question is where incoming freshmen Deontay Anderson and Jaylon Jones end up. Both high 4* recruits, many fans expect Anderson to push for a starting job right away. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen, but most media expect the duo to at least be top backups, likely behind Conner.
Special Teams: Juniors Gary Wunderlich and Will Gleeson return to do the kicking and punting, respectively. Wunderlich (19 of 25 FG, long 48) has played since his freshman year, but has long struggled with accuracy. Gleeson (40.7 average) will not boom punts, but he does not often allow returns. Speaking of returns, the return units for the Rebels were awful last year, averaging just 17.7 yards per kick return and an abysmal 3.7 yards per punt return. There are open auditions for the return jobs and Ole Miss really needs to get more production out of both spots.
Schedule: Beyond the Labor Day showdown with FSU, the non-conference schedule (Wofford, Memphis, GA Southern) is pretty easy, although Memphis did upset Ole Miss last year, albeit in Memphis. The SEC slate is mixed. The Rebels get Alabama, Georgia, Auburn, and Mississippi State at home, but must travel to Arkansas and LSU in back-to-back weeks.
Overall: Nearly everyone is placing Ole Miss as a fringe top 10 team, but I find myself not being totally sold on this team. The offense could be very potent in the pass game despite the loss of Treadwell. Although he was a once-in-a-decade type player for a program like Ole Miss, the Rebels have recruited very well at the wideout spots and have several options. And Kelly gives them a fighting chance as he should be one of the better QBs in the country. However, the offensive line is very young at the tackle spots and the running game was often shut down by better defenses. If the passing game has to carry all the load and Ole Miss becomes one-dimensional, I don’t think they can navigate this schedule easily. Many preseason prognosticators expect the defense to bounce back from last year’s average season, but I’m just not sure. Depth at most positions is very young and unproven and I think many people are too easily dismissing the losses of Elston and Hilton, who were productive leaders. I’d compare their losses to FSU losing Lamarcus Joyner and Terrence Brooks. The Rebels have a lot of players with recruiting hype in the secondary, but not a lot of proven depth. All that being said, though, there aren’t really any games that I look at and say, “definite loss.” I think Ole Miss will be an underdog in several games, but I think most are tossups, thanks largely to the presence of Kelly. But, I always make guesses as to records at the end of these and I’ll do so again. I just don’t think the defense will be as good as some think and I think the offense won’t be as prolific as last season. Freeze has added to his win total every year so far at Ole Miss, but I think this year the Rebs slip a bit and go 8-4 during the regular season, but I assume a lot of their losses will be close.