Ready to run: Can Mathers and Walton lead Rebels rushing attack?
The success of the Ole Miss offense in 2014 will ultimately be determined by the play of veteran quarterback Bo Wallace, but in a running back-heavy SEC, the Rebels will need to run the ball well, too.
Ole Miss lost starting tailback Jeff Scott from last season’s team, leaving room in the backfield for juniors I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton to step into larger roles. The two backs combined to carry the ball 208 times in 2013, totaling 1,086 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground.
Neither back was able to reach the 600-yard plateau by themselves, but together Mathers and Walton combined to put up similar numbers to a standard featured back in the SEC.
Can they keep the running game afloat without Scott in 2014? The key will be allowing Mathers and Walton to find their niches within the Rebels’ rushing attack.
Their greatest strength is how different the two backs play the game. Mathers is a more traditional every-down back who averaged nearly six yards per carry in 2013. Walton, meanwhile. is more of a pass-catching scat back with big-play ability. He averaged just 4.6 yards per carry lasts season but ran for six touchdowns to Mathers’ three.
Walton also caught 29 passes for 322 yards and two more touchdowns, bring his season total to eight.
Neither player will need to shoulder the full load in the Rebels’ running game, but both will need to impact every game with their varying playing styles.
The best-case scenario for Mathers will be 15 carries per game at better than five yards per carry. His role will not be breaking off 25-yard runs or multiple-touchdown games, but will instead be to wear down opposing defenses by consistently posting runs for positive gains.
Walton’s best-case would be to complement Mathers with somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 touches per game, including at least one reception out of the backfield. Walton also lines up as a receiver with relative regularity, but if he can attack the edges out of the backfield as Mathers wears down opponents’ defensive interiors, they could once again form a two-headed monster to rival the top tailbacks in the conference.
The fear is the two role-specific backs may make the Rebels offense predictable, allowing room for one of the two backs to take prominence in the Ole Miss backfield. There may even be room for emerging sophomore Mark Dodson to make an impact at tailback as a consistent ball-carrier with pass protection abilities.
No one in the Rebels stable of backs is as established as Scott was when he departed from Ole Miss, but together the group of tailbacks has all the skills to compete with any running game in the SEC.