Ole Miss backs this season could look similar, be much better than last season
Ole Miss’ 2015 running game wasn’t as dreary as it was often made out to be. It wasn’t great by any standards but did rank No. 7 in the SEC, not No. 14.
The hope for the position in 2016 was for 6-foot-1 junior Jordan Wilkins and 5-foot-11 senior Akeem Judd to tandem as the bigger backs the Rebels have been lacking under Hugh Freeze.
With Wilkins now academically ineligible, the Rebels go back to a backfield with no one taller than 5-foot-11 but a group still vastly different than it looked in 2015.
Last season, Jaylen Walton (5-foot-8) was the leading rusher with 730 yards. That was 12th in the SEC and 230 more than his quarterback Chad Kelly. It was hundreds less than the top nine rushers in the league, all 1,000- yard guys.
Judd ran for 421 on only 77 carries and averaged 5.5 yards per carry, the highest average among the four most-used backs. Wilkins had 379 yards on 72 carries. Three inches and 56 pounds heavier than Walton, Judd will shoulder the responsibility to move the Rebels up the rushing rankings. Their 183 yards per game ranked 74 yards behind LSU’s SEC-leading average.
However, the Ole Miss running game is hoping it picks up where it left off in the second half of last season. Over the last six games, the Rebels ran for 200 yards in four of those six contests and at least 150 yards in all six for an average of 201.7. That was a dramatic increase from their first seven games, when the team only averaged 167.1 yards per game.
But now with Wilkins gone, it speeds up the progress of redshirt freshman Eric Swinney. Swinney missed all of last season following surgery to repair a stress fracture. He came to Oxford as a four-star prospect and has impressed coaches in practice with his quickness but also a knack for bowling over tacklers.
That’s what the Rebels need, no matter the size of the back doing the bowling. In the rough SEC, it becomes a matter of holding up to the beatings.
Freshman D’Vaughn Pennamon is two inches taller than Swinney and nearly 10 pounds heavier. He was one of the freshmen Freeze took notice of in camp.
Junior Eugene Brazley and sophomore D.K. Buford combined for 29 carries last season and can make their ways into the mix. If Judd can double his production and Swinney can translate his practice into game production, Ole Miss’ backfield won’t look a whole lot different but could chart a lot better.
That said, if Judd and the two freshmen are the top three in the opener against Florida State, the trio has one combined start. On top of that, the backfield won’t be 6-foot tall and imposing, but it will have potential to escape the middle of the SEC pack.