Post-spring strengths and weaknesses: Ole Miss
After showing noticeable improvement in the first two years of the Hugh Freeze era, the Ole Miss Rebels enjoyed a breakout season in 2014, winning nine games including three against 10-win New Year’s Six bowl teams (Boise State, Alabama and Mississippi State, as well as 10-win AAC champion Memphis).
The Rebels have since said goodbye to their three-year starting quarterback, two starting linebackers and two All-Americans in the secondary, but have maintained one of the most talented rosters in the SEC thanks to Freeze’s recruiting prowess.
This spring marked a pivotal transition for Ole Miss, as it aims to find a new quarterback and new playmakers on defense while also hoping to cash in on its historic 2013 recruiting haul this year. The Rebels made strides during the spring, but there are still obvious flaws that need to be worked out before a new year starts in September.
With that in mind, here are a few of the team’s most pronounced strengths and weaknesses following spring practice.
- First-round NFL talent: The Rebels possess not one but as many as four potential first-round picks in next year’s NFL draft. That’s one-fourth of the first round hailing not just from one conference or one division, but from one school. Left tackle Laremy Tunsil, perhaps the best at his position in the nation, and defensive tackle and former No. 1 overall recruit Robert Nkemdiche have both been projected as high as the top 2 picks in the draft. Former five-star wideout Laquon Treadwell led the team in receptions in each of his first two collegiate seasons, and former five-star talent Tony Conner is one of the nation’s hardest hitting safeties. Between these four the Rebels have the ultimate blindside protector, a dynamic playmaker on the outside, a powerful push up front and a punishing tackler in the back-end of the defense. Together they help Ole Miss present perhaps the most talented roster in the SEC regardless of position. That’s certainly going to help Ole Miss this fall.
- Depth at skill positions: Treadwell is far from the Rebels’ only dynamic playmaker at the skill positions entering 2015, although he is the team’s top option on offense. Beyond the star junior Ole Miss has one of the best and most experienced pass-catching tailbacks in the SEC in Jaylen Walton, and perhaps the most athletically gifted receiving tight end in the conference in former wideout Evan Engram. Long-limbed wideout Cody Core made defenses pay as a deep threat a year ago, and between he, fellow returning wideout Quincy Adeboyejo, emerging threats Markell Pack and Derrick Jones, and 2015 signees Van Jefferson and DaMarkus Lodge, the Rebels have one of the deepest groups of wideouts around. This depth will allow different skill players to have margin for error knowing there is someone else on the roster capable of picking up the slack. That principle in a Freeze offense is as dangerous as it sounds.
- Talent in secondary: Ole Miss bid farewell to two All-American defensive backs this offseason in Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt, so it may come as a bit of a surprise to find the secondary listed as a strength after spring ball. However, based on the way former No. 1 junior college cornerback prospects Tee Shepard and Tony Bridges performed this spring, especially in the Grove Bowl, there is no reason for concern at the back of the defense. Shepard and Bridges are starting-caliber corners with a wealth of playing experience under their belts despite both making their SEC debuts this fall. Conner is the SEC’s best strong safety, Trae Elston returns to his spot as the team’s Rover (a spot in which he’s excelled) and former corner Mike Hilton (the 2015 Chucky Mullins Courage Award winner) has moved to free safety where he can continue to put his coverage skills to good use. Depth behind those five may be a bit thin compared to years past, but the starting secondary is nothing to shrug at.
- No proven quarterback: Bo Wallace may not have always made the right decisions in the biggest moments, but he did bring experience and consistency to the most important position on the field as Freeze rebuilt the Rebels in his first three years on the job. Now he’s gone, and Ole Miss struggled mightily this spring to find his replacement. Freeze remained adamant that he wouldn’t decide on a starter until the fall, which is fair considering the magnitude of the decision, but if the quarterbacks’ collective play in the Grove Bowl is any indication, Ole Miss is truly behind the 8-ball in finding a new signal caller. Redshirt sophomore Ryan Buchanan was said to have a slight edge in the three-man competition entering the spring game, but he was just 5 of 16 passing in what turned out to be a putrid performance. Junior college transfer Chad Kelly, a former Clemson Tiger and nephew of Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, was a mere 9 of 19 passing in his Ole Miss debut, and dual-threat weapon Devante Kincade led the way in completing 9 of 18 passes, although he did most of his damage as a runner. This isn’t to say one of these three won’t step up and seize the job come August, but it is concerning to see so little out of the quarterback position when the rest of the team is as talented as it is.
- Injuries along offensive line: Ole Miss returns all five of its starting offensive lineman from last season, as well as its top reserve lineman, as well as a new four-star signee from the 2015 recruiting class. So why is offensive line considered a weakness after spring ball? Well, Tunsil missed the entire spring rehabbing a broken leg, Robert Conyers (the top reserve) missed most of the spring with a broken arm and guard Aaron Morris missed the entire spring rehabbing a torn ACL suffered late last season. Four-star guard Javon Patterson will help add depth to a position with dismal injury concerns, but his lack of SEC experience may present more of a learning curve than some might anticipate. The talent is there, but the line has really not gotten to work as a complete unit since last November. It’ll need to regain its chemistry quickly to start the 2015 season in hopes to protecting whoever the new quarterback turns out to be.
- Transition at middle linebacker: There’s no reason to believe C.J. Johnson won’t succeed as Deterrian Shackelford’s replacement at middle linebacker, especially considering how coaches raved about Johnson throughout the spring. However, he’s never played middle linebacker at the college level (he played defensive end as recently as last year), meaning there’s about to be a major drop in experience from Shackelford, a sixth-year senior last year, and Serderius Bryant, a senior in 2014 and a former All-SEC honoree, to Johnson. Considering the middle linebacker often anchors the defense, Johnson will need to be up to speed on his new position quickly to serve as the glue that holds the talented pieces of the defense together. His impact may not be reflected on the stat sheet, but if Johnson gets the unit lined up and positions himself properly on every play, the Landsharks will succeed. If not, an otherwise supremely talented defense may struggle more than most expect.