The Ole Miss Rebels return a decent amount of production from the overachieving 2017 team, including key starters at important positions such as QB, WR, LT, DT, S and CB.
While some positions on the depth chart are practically set in stone – AJ Brown, for instance, has very little to worry about — others positions are very much up in the air, and you can expect a fierce battle through camp to determine who gets the nod Week 1 against Texas Tech.
Here are the 5 biggest camp battles for the Rebels, and who wins them.
OLB: Josh Clarke vs. Willie Hibbler
Everyone knows that the linebacker corps is the biggest question not only on the defense, but the entire team. Both predominant starters from 2017, DeMarquis Gates and Tayler Polk, have graduated, with one in the NFL and the other now on the coaching staff. This obviously means there’s going to be a battle for both of the starting jobs at linebacker.
At the OLB spot, it appears to be down to Josh Clarke, a redshirt freshman with excellent range and athleticism, and Willie Hibbler, a junior with good size at 6-3, 227, who has a decent amount of experience playing both inside and out. Clarke was one of the many younger players who used a strong spring to catapult themselves up the depth chart, and there is hope among the coaching staff that Hibbler, who has always displayed a huge amount of upside, has finally turned the corner in his development and will begin realizing his potential.
Ultimately, I think this battle could rage all the way up to Week 1, but I think Hibbler will win the job. Clarke’s greatest asset is his speed and quickness, which are great for defending the outside run and pass, but his slight frame (6-2, 217) could lead to some difficulty holding up at the point of attack and getting inside run fits. Hibbler has enough speed to play the outside run but also the strength and experience to hold up inside.
Winner: Willie Hibbler
ILB: Detric Bing-Dukes vs. Zikerrion Baker
The second of two camp battles to fill the starting the linebacker unit comes inside between Bing-Dukes and Baker, though there’s a chance Mohamed Sanogo could sneak into the mix, as well. Bing-Dukes (6-1, 254) is the odds-on favorite, largely due to his experience as a fifth-year senior.
Baker (6-1, 216) doesn’t have anywhere near that level of experience after redshirting last year, though he offers two things in abundance that Bing-Dukes entirely lacks: speed and range. Similarly to Josh Clarke, the concern for Baker is his ability remain stout at the point of attack against the inside run, because he’ll face a plethora of massive and athletically gifted interior linemen trying to open holes for some of the best backs in the country. Bing-Dukes has the size and strength that Baker lacks, but really struggles to move and lacks twitch and burst.
I think Bing-Dukes will get the nod early on in the season due to his veteran leadership and experience, but I really wouldn’t be surprised to see Baker eventually overtake Bing-Dukes as a full-time starter, possibly even early in the season.
Winner: Detric Bing-Dukes
DE: Ryder Anderson vs. Qaadir Sheppard
The Rebels lost two All-SEC defensive ends at the end of 2017 in the form of Breeland Speaks and Marquis Haynes, both selected in the 2018 NFL Draft. That leaves a heck of a void at DE for a defense starving for playmakers. Victor Evans (6-3, 245), who tallied 5 TFLs last year in just 5 games, appears to have one of the starting spots locked down, leaving a battle on the opposite side.
Sheppard, a Syracuse transfer, didn’t make the impact last year that some were expecting, in part because of injuries. He missed all of spring ball because of a foot injury, opening up the door for Anderson, who appeared to make the most of his opportunity and won most improved defensive player of the spring. With that said, don’t expect Sheppard to just roll over, especially now that he’s healthy.
Anderson, just a sophomore, has prototypical length for an edge rusher at 6-6, 244, with a huge wingspan and improved strength hold up agains the run. Sheppard (6-3, 249) isn’t as long, but is a bit quicker, showing more burst, twitch and range. I anticipate a rotation to be used along the entire defensive line, but I think Anderson, with his upside and potential, will get the start opposite Evans.
Winner: Ryder Anderson
RG: Jordan Sims vs. Ben Brown
The left side of the offensive line is set with LT Greg Little, LG Javon Patterson and Sean Rawlings at C. The right side is a tad more fluid. This is especially true at RG, where there is a battle brewing between Sims, a battle-tested senior, and Brown, a redshirt freshman who enjoyed a strong spring playing with the ones while Sims filled in at center for Rawlings, who was injured.
Sims has been an on-again, off-again starter the past two years, seeing time at guard and center. At 6-4, 330, he’s a massive kid with a powerful base who can generate a push up front. Considering his experience, he also provides a lot of versatility and flexibility up front. Brown (6-5, 300) is unproven, obviously, but has shown enormous upside with quick feet and a strong punch.
There are a couple instances where a first- or second-year player is battling a senior – this being one of them, obviously – and I think the Rebs are going to give a lot of opportunities to the younger guys to get them seasoned for the future. There will be a lot of personnel losses following this year, and the younger guys need to get experience. I think Brown wins because of this, but also because Sims’ positional flexibility is too valuable to keep him at one spot. He’s probably better suited as a swing linemen, filling in at C, G and OT.
Winner: Ben Brown
RB: Scottie Phillips vs. Eric Swinney vs. Isaiah Woullard
This is without a doubt the battle that fans will be most interested in during camp. With Jordan Wilkins off to the NFL after a terrific 2017 season – one in which he became just the fifth 1,000-yard rusher in school history – there is an enormous void to fill. Unfortunately, those competing to fill that void are almost entirely unproven.
Swinney (5-9, 215), a redshirt junior, has the most experience, which isn’t saying much considering he has just 42 career carries for 201 yards. Woullard (5-9, 200) spent last fall taking classes, not even playing, at a junior college waiting for a scholarship to open up. Phillips (5-9, 215), ranked as the No. 3 JUCO RB in the country last year, is who many consider will win the job.
I imagine there will be a bit of a rotation, but I’d be surprised if Phillips didn’t get the bulk of the carries because of his upside and playmaking potential in this offense as a rusher and receiver.
Swinney, once considered among the top high school RBs in the country, has battled numerous leg injuries the past few years and is still trying to find the juice that made him so highly sought after. Woullard is a very intriguing wild card who, despite setting a Mississippi state high school record for career rushing yards (8,294), was very lightly recruited and patiently bid his time before impressing in the spring.
Winner: Scottie Phillips