College Football Preview 2015-2016: 10. Ole Miss Rebels
2014-2015 Record: 9-4 (5-3 SEC)
Coach: Hugh Freeze, fourth year (24-15 overall)
Key Losses: S Cody Prewitt, QB Bo Wallace
Heisman Hopeful: WR Laquon Treadwell
Breakout Player: CB Mike Hilton
Halfway through 2014-2015, the state of Mississippi was on fire. Mississippi State was ranked No. 1 in the polls for a couple weeks, following statement victories against some of the SEC's top programs (Texas A&M, LSU). The team farther north, in Oxford, was also having quite a year as well. The Ole Miss Rebels were ranked No. 3 in the nation at one point, 7-0 and had a win against Alabama to their credit. Though, the second half of the season was not very kind to either team, especially Ole Miss. The Rebels didn't just lose four of six; they were humiliated by Arkansas 30-0, were blown out 42-3 in the Peach Bowl and also had to suffer through watching stars Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil struggle through severe injuries. Even so, finishing off 9-4 and sticking in SEC West contention for much of the year was good progress for Hugh Freeze and the Rebels and the team hopes to continue it's upward trend into 2015.
Backfield: Say what you will about Bo Wallace and some of his performances with the Rebels, but there isn't much denying how good this guy was when he was on his game, and how experienced and tested he was. Wallace was a three-year starter for Freeze and Ole Miss and proved to be terrific in some of the Rebels' biggest games, like last year's upset of Alabama. But, much like the rest of the team, he slumped heavily at times, particularly in the last six games of the season. He is gone now, and Freeze will be looking at his first quarterback competition since arriving in Oxford. A three-man race has begun to see who will replace Wallace, with all three having very different skillsets. Perhaps the favorite of the trio has to Chad Kelly, who has had an interesting route to Ole Miss. The nephew of Buffalo Bills' legend and Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, talent has never been an issue. But, he was dismissed at Clemson and got into a bar fight just months ago. Though, he starred in the junior college ranks and there are many who think he has outgrown some of his antics. Kelly has a huge arm and the genes to be a superb quarterback; he has continued to work on being smarter both on and off the field and becoming more of a leader. While Kelly's big name and arm have him likely in the lead for the job, expect sophomores DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan to give him a run for his money. Kincade was used often in short yardage and goal line situations, as his wide frame was adept for running the ball. But, he still has a long way to go as a passer. He has to continue to work on his accuracy and pocket awareness. Though, he has more experience than Buchanan, who hasn't thrown a single pass in his collegiate career. Going from zero passes to the physical and talented play of the brutal SEC West isn't an easy adjustment for anyone, no matter the weapons that they may have surrounding them. Whoever starts at quarterback will have an experienced back to hand the ball off to in senior Jaylen Walton. Walton ran for 586 yards and five touchdowns a season ago, and the tiny, 5'8" back showed plenty of elusiveness and big play potential. That big play potential can be evidenced by his huge run against Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl that helped lay the foundation for a big win for the Rebels. Sophomore Jordan Wilkins is likely to backup Walton this season. Wilkins also showed the ability to break open games every single time he touches the ball, averaging nearly seven yards every rush and finishing up with 361 yards. Wilkins was No. 3 on the depth chart last year but the transfer of second-stringer I'Tavius Mathers to Middle Tennessee State should open up more chances for Wilkins. Sophomore Eugene Brazley should be in store for a lot more snaps this season, while newcomer Eric Swinney, a four-star find, will try to work his way on to the field.
Offensive Line: Just weeks after seeing Treadwell go down with a severe injury, Ole Miss fans had to endure tackle Laremy Tunsil going down with a knee injury. Tunsil, much like Treadwell, was another huge piece to the Rebels' infamous 2013 recruiting class and he is widely viewed as a first-round NFL prospect for the 2016 Draft. Tunsil has excellent size, at 6'5" and over 300 pounds but he is quicker and more athletic than his large frame may indicate, something that may suffer because of his injuries. Still, Tunsil earned All-SEC honors for his performance last season and when healthy, there is no doubt that the left tackle is one of the best linemen in the land. Tunsil, in fact, is likely to be Ole Miss' only non-senior starting offensive linemen. The right guard position is going to fall to Aaron Morris, another huge linemen. At nearly 350 pounds, it is not very difficult for Morris to use his massive frame to pave ways for Walton and the Rebels' other playmakers to make huge plays. Joining Morris at the heart of the unit is going to be senior center Ben Still. Still is a solid linemen who definitely knows how to get the job done in the brutal trenches of the SEC. Left guard should fall to another senior, Justin Bell. Bell is also huge, at over 350 pounds, but he can still get out and get downfield to make some key blocks. The right tackle spot, meanwhile, is likely to fall to Fahn Cooper. Cooper also has terrific size and strength and pass rushers won't have any easier job getting past him on the right side than they will Tunsil on the left side. Recruiting wise, Freeze and staff brought in a number of linemen who will contribute. Chief among them is going to be guard Javon Patterson, a bullying linemen from inside the state. Florida prospect Michael Howard is a solid tackle who will have to bulk up even more, while three-star gem Alex Givens provides depth to a unit that could certainly need some more.
Defensive Line: It was the Rebels' secondary and pass defense that got much of the credit for the team's stingy defense a year ago, but the defensive line's contributions cannot be overlooked. The unit was great at stopping the run and proved to be solid at getting pressure on opposing defenses. Co-defensive coordinators Dave Wommack and Jason Jones will lean on the unit once more heavily. The star of the defensive line has to be junior Robert Nkemdiche. Few players with the size of Nkemdiche have the versatility and quickness he possesses. He can play on the inside or outside and finds ways to impact the game in either role. Nkemdiche had 35 tackles, 4 TFL and two sacks last season, solid numbers across the board. A year older and even stronger, Nkemdiche could put up huge numbers, three years removed from being the top overall player in the Class of 2013. Also returning alongside Nkemdiche will be senior C.J. Johnson, who may be seen as the Rebels' top pass rusher entering his final year with the team. He managed four sacks a season ago, but has continued to mature and get stronger, meaning that number could also increase. Johnson relies more on quickness and finesse moves than brute power and he has success doing so. A number of players are competing for a possible starting gig at the other defensive end position. Among them is junior Fadol Brown, sophomore Marquise Haynes and senior Channing Ward. Brown is the favorite to start, after a productive 2014-2015 in which he recorded 38 tackles, with 5.5 of them going for a loss. Though, Haynes has the upside to take over the position by the end of the year. Even in his first season of any playing time, Haynes was terrific, actually leading Ole Miss in sacks, with 7.5. It will be interesting to see how productive and imposing Haynes can be in an increased role. Channing Ward is an interesting character; he was a pretty highly touted recruit when he arrived at Oxford. Although productive early on in his career, he was overshadowed by the other vast amount of talent Freeze was able to bring on to campus. Ward still managed 30 tackles and 2.5 sacks last season and should push for a solid dose of snaps this season. There are number of people competing for the defensive tackle spot opposite Nkemdiche as well. Senior Isaac Gross is a stout, effective player, but all the hype in the spring and on to fall camp has been around junior college snag D.J. Jones. Arriving from East Mississippi CC, Jones has the frame and motor to put up big time numbers at the FBS level. He was rated as a four-star pickup, and the top defensive tackle coming from the JUCO ranks, according to ESPN. Another newcomer that could push for snaps from the beginning is going to be defensive end Joe Anderson, a Louisiana addition.
Linebackers: Considering Ole Miss runs a 4-2-5 defensive scheme, the linebackers on this defense often get overlooked. But, the unit should still be a strength even with a number of pieces departing, with plenty of experience returning. The most important returnee has to be Denzel Nkemdiche, who missed a ton of the 2014-2015 campaign with a broken ankle. The brother of Robert, Denzel was a proven run stopper before the injury and the Rebels are hoping it doesn't slow him down. A player with terrific closing speed, expect Nkemdiche to wreak plenty of havoc on the edge, while his brother does the more dirty work in the middle. Also back is going to be another senior, Christian Russell. Russell showed plenty of promise a year ago, with 23 tackles, but will be pushed into a much larger role, with Sederius Bryant and more departing from the unit. Russell is expected to start at the middle linebacker position. Certain to push Russell for playing is going to be JUCO transfer Terry Caldwell. Freeze dipped into the junior college ranks often in this year's recruiting cycle, and while Caldwell isn't the most hyped of the incoming JUCO finds, he should still be ready to produce because of the lack of depth in the unit. Sophomore DeMarquis Gates is a solid backup who should be expected to see a much larger role after seeing relatively little action a year ago, when he picked up 13 tackles. Gates is a great athlete who should be a major help as a run defender. Three-star Zedrick Woods is sure to compete for action from the get-go. The outside linebacker from Florida offers plenty of potential.
Secondary: Ole Miss' secondary became an infamous unit a year ago, a unit full of ball hawking playmakers known as the "Landsharks". Though, the secondary mat have some growing pains at least early this season, without Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson, two key losses. Prewitt made his claim as a hard hitting weapon who had 64 tackles and three picks last season, while Golson was always creating turnovers, picking off 10 passes last season, returning one for a score. Without Prewitt and Golson, expect Freeze and staff to look at senior Mike Hilton for answers. Hilton actually led the Rebels in tackles a season ago, posting 71 total, while also picking off three passes. Despite being pretty undersized, especially for SEC standards at just 5'9", Hilton uses his terrific athleticism and great knowledge of the game to make plays. The Rebels will have to lean on Hilton even more this year, as he takes over as the team's top cornerback following the loss of Golson. Joining Hilton in the defensive backfield will be junior Tony Conner, who earned All-SEC honors last season. The versatile Connor can do anything the Rebels need him to do; he offers help in run support, evidenced by 69 tackles, but can also blitz and disrupt opposing backfields, as he had nine tackles for loss in 2014-2015. Connor is still hitting his stride as a defensive back and should continue to learn and improve on the fly this season. The return of senior Trae Elston, a fellow safety should also help.
Elston is an aggressive, attacking safety who managed 59 tackles a year ago. Elston should also be a major help in coverage, as he showed great ball hawking skills in the spring. The favorite to take over Prewitt's important role at free safety is going to be sophomore C.J. Hampton. Prewitt was constantly making plays all across the field, and expect Hampton to have that type of freedom. Hampton had just 10 tackles last season, so there is going to be quite a big drop off early, but he has all the potential to fill the void nicely. Closing out the unit is going to be junior Tee Shepard, who should take over Golson's spot at cornerback. Shepard missed all of last season with torn knee ligaments and his return gives Ole Miss another experienced weapon in the back who offers more size and physicality than Hilton. Yet another junior college transfer is sure to see action, in cornerback Tony Bridges. Bridges arrives from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and should bring immediate playmaking potential. Safety Cameron Ordway is another newcomer who should bring plenty of potential to the defensive backfield and he brings depth.
Special Teams: Sophomore Gary Wunderlich is slated to take over full time as kicker for the Rebels after splitting time last season, a year in which he knocked down six of eight. Punter Will Gleeson is also back, while the return duties should once more fall mainly to Jaylen Walton off kicks, while Markell Pack should handle punts.
Since Hugh Freeze arrived from Arkansas State, Ole Miss has improved by one win every single year. With the 2013 recruiting class now experienced and ready to go, and in his fourth year with the Rebels, this has to be seen as the true breakthrough season for Freeze. There is no denying the talent on this roster; Treadwell, Tunsil, Engram, Nkemdiche and Connor are some of the best players inside the stocked SEC and all should hopefully stay healthy this season. Though, the quarterback situation is iffy at best, even if Chad Kelly can prove himself worthy. Plus, depth on this team is few and far between and could become a problem late in the year. Even so, an easy non-conference slate and a more experienced roster should push Ole Miss to at least ten wins, if not much, much more.