Gridiron Now‘s Ashely Barnett (a Rebel alum) is covering Ole Miss Spring Football Drills and reportedly is sipping Mint Julep’s in The Grove between practices. It’s never too early to prepare for football season in Oxford.
Despite the loss of some key seniors and three juniors leaving early for the NFL, 2016 is setting up to be a big season for Ole Miss. That season technically gets under way Wednesday with the start of spring practice.
The offensive line and secondary have some question marks, but it helps when a star quarterback – in this case Chad Kelly – is returning for his senior season. Kelly led the SEC with 4,042 passing yards and 31 TDs last, and he figures to be more comfortable this season, his second in coach Hugh Freeze. And even with the loss of Laquon Treadwell, Rebels still should have one of the best receiving corps in the nation.
If this is to be the season in which Ole Miss makes its first appearance in an SEC championship game, the Rebels need to start getting some answers to the few questions they have. They are going to make noise this fall; how much is the question.
Priority One: Ole Miss lost three key juniors — Laremy Tunsil, Robert Nkemdiche and Laquon Treadwell – and having younger guys fit seamlessly into their roles is big. It’s imperative that the replacements for Nkemdiche and Treadwqell have strong springs. It seems likely that the replacement for Tunsil will arrive in the summer.
Strongest position: Wide receiver. Despite Treadwell and Cody Core heading to the NFL, the Rebels should be fine at receiver. Junior Damore’ea Stringfellow came on strong late last season in his first year after transferring from Washington; he has the skill set to become the go-to receiver. Then again, senior Quincy Adeboyejo and junior Markell Pack likely think they have what it takes to be the No. 1 guy, too. Senior TE Evan Engram decided to stay in school, and he’s another big-time weapon. Four-star recruits A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf arrive in the summer and add even more talent at the position.
Weakest position: Safety. The Rebels will miss Trae Elston and Mike Hilton; they combined for 140 tackles, six interceptions and 27 pass breakups. One positive is that Tony Connor is returning from injury; he played in just five games last season. It’s not necessarily realistic to think he will be back to his old self in the spring, but showing some flashes would be a good thing. If he is healthy this fall, he will contend for All-SEC honors. There is potential elsewhere, but there also are some questions. Junior C.J. Hampton needs to show he can handle the job at free safety. This is a big spring for the Moore twins, juniors A.J. and C.J., as well as junior Zedrick Woods. A lot is expected of redshirt freshman Armani Linton. Four-star true freshman Deontay Anderson – considered one of the nation’s top three safeties in the 2016 recruiting cycle – arrives in the summer and has the talent to play early. That means the holdovers need strong springs or risk being bypassed.
Player most on the spot, offense: T/C Sean Rawlings. Rawlings helped fill the void at right tackle when Tunsil sat out seven games because of an NCAA violation. He stepped in when regular right tackle Fahn Cooper had to move to the left side. Rawlings, a sophomore who is one of the most experienced players up front, also has experience at center, and the Rebels need him to step up again and become a fixture on the 2016 o-line.
Player most on the spot, defense: DT Breeland Speaks. As a redshirt freshman backup last season, Speaks had 5.5 tackles for loss. The assumption is he will step into Nkemdiche’s vacated starting spot and expand on his solid 2015 season. He needs to show this spring that those expectations are warranted. The defensive line has some intriguing parts, but they need to show they fit together, and Speaks taking over in the middle would help in that regard.
The clock is ticking on: WR Derrick Jones. Jones played extensively at cornerback as a true freshman in 2013, then saw action at both corner and wide receiver in 2014. He was strictly a wide receiver last season but managed just six receptions. We mentioned before how deep the Rebels are at wide receiver, but Jones – now a senior — still needs to find a way to stick out this spring. If he doesn’t, he risks being bypassed this summer by four-star recruits A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf. Jones had a strong fall camp last season and has good speed; it needs to come to the fore this spring.
Newcomer to watch: QB Shea Patterson. The Rebels have no clear-cut backup to Kelly. Patterson was a national top-five recruit considered the best pro-style quarterback in the recruiting cycle. He will vie with redshirt freshman Jason Pellerin for the No. 2 job. And, truth be told, Patterson will be closely watched because Rebels fans are eager to see what the future of their offense looks like. Also worth watching will be five-star DT Benito Jones, who also enrolled early and will go through spring drills. Given the state of Ole Miss’ interior defensive line, Jones will get every opportunity this spring to make a case that he deserves to be in the rotation this fall.
Notable players who will miss spring practice: Two key offensive linemen — junior Rod Taylor and senior Robert Conyers – will miss spring drills. Taylor had offseason shoulder surgery and Conyers is recovering from an ACL injury. Both could start this fall, which means Ole Miss could be without three potential starting offensive linemen this spring: Five-star recruit Greg Little – Tunsil’s heir apparent at left tackle – won’t arrive until the summer. Conyers likely will start at center this season, while Taylor could start at guard.
Spring game: April 9 (final practice; no spring game).
First game: September 5, vs. Florida State in Orlando.
(You can follow Ashley Barnett on Twitter @ashbarnett_)