Ole Miss deserves preseason Top 10 billing thanks to strength up front
It’s possible preseason poll voters won’t be kind to Ole Miss based on how the 2014 season ended along with the exit of Bo Wallace, but keeping the Rebels out of the Top 10 will show negligence based on this reason:
Hugh Freeze’s team will be scary good — arguably the SEC’s best — in a line of scrimmage league, returning all nine starters along their offensive and defensive fronts.
The Rebels welcome back a league-leading 13 of 17 players on the defensive line and signed early enrollee D.J. Jones, the No. 1-rated JUCO defensive tackle, to bolster a position group with tremendous depth.
All-American Robert Nkemdiche, a projected first-round selection in 2016, generated the most buzz but it was freshman Marquis Haynes last season who took advantage of 1-on-1 situations on the nation’s top scoring defense. Haynes piled up a team-high 7.5 sacks and took over the majority of Fadol Brown’s snaps.
Paired with veteran C.J. Johnson on the other side of the line, Haynes should be in for another stellar campaign and provides the Rebels with two pass-rushing bookends comparable to any duo in the Southeast. He’s one of three rising sophomores off the edge in the SEC with All-American potential, joining Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett and Tennessee’s Derek Barnett.
Projected 2015 Ole Miss depth chart, OL + DL
- LT Laremy Tunsil, Jr.
- LG Justin Bell, Sr.
- C Ben Still, Sr.
- RG Rod Taylor, Soph.
- RT Fahn Cooper, Sr.
- DE Marquis Haynes, Soph.
- DT Robert Nkemdiche, Jr.
- NT Issac Gross, Sr.
- DE C.J. Johnson, Sr.
Impact players Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt are irreplaceable talents at the back end, but Ole Miss has so many interchangeable parts at the point of attack that the Rebels aren’t expecting much of a drop-off against the pass. Takeaways may decrease, but efficiency, notably on third down, will not.
When he returns from injury, Laremy Tunsil’s emergence as the leader of a potentially dominant offensive line is crucial to the Rebels’ success as a unit. This group gave up 31 sacks last season, most in the West, but Tunsil stuck out as the most consistent at the left tackle spot.
With a new quarterback under center, Ole Miss will need to shore up inconsistency at the guard positions and avoid getting beat inside which plagued last season’s team.
Losing out on four-star Drew Richmond on signing day wasn’t a total loss according to Freeze who feels comfortable transitioning one of his quarterbacks into a three-point stance during spring practice, further improving the SEC’s most experienced, but still developing, team at the line.
“We are moving Jeremy Liggins to offensive tackle, which I think is his future,” Freeze revealed last week. “This made me feel better about not just going after a kid. I think that is going to be Jeremy’s future as far as where he needs to be.”
The 300-pound short-yardage option who lined up as a blocking tight end in some formations could still be used as a decoy in various sets. Liggins’ transformation into one of the ‘big uglies’ is another weapon — and perhaps passing game wrinkle — Ole Miss will have at its disposal this fall.
Don’t overlook the power of a pass rush and experience along the offensive line. We all know SEC football games are won in the trenches.