Scoring wasn’t the problem for Ole Miss in 2016. Keeping the other team from scoring was the problem.
The Rebels averaged 32.6 points per game last season, good for fourth in the SEC. To add perspective to what had been the league’s top-scoring attack, after losing quarterback Chad Kelly for the season’s final three games, Ole Miss scored 17 and 20 points in its final two games, losses at Vanderbilt and to Mississippi State.
Kelly played in nine games and had a 62.5 percent completion percentage, 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions. True freshman Shea Patterson took over and threw more often than Kelly, 44 attempts per game with six touchdowns and three picks in three starts. He completed 54.5 percent of those passes. Combined, the Rebels ranked first in the SEC with 314.9 passing yards per game. No other team averaged 300.
The Rebels had to do it through the air. The run game was stagnant.
Ole Miss ranked No. 12 in the conference in rushing, one of three teams averaging fewer than 150 rushing yards per game. In seven losses, it averaged fewer than 120 yards per game. Of its 17 rushing touchdowns, Kelly and backup quarterback Jason Pellerin accounted for eight.
The Rebels took an early blow when junior Jordan Wilkins was ruled academically ineligible for the season (a school error, not his own). Despite Wilkins being the lone big back, it left senior Akeem Judd and freshman Eric Swinney. When Swinney went out for the season after one run in the opener against Florida State, the wheels were all but dismantled from the run game. Judd did have 826 rushing yards, but Kelly was second and Patterson was fourth despite playing only three games.
In 2017, Wilkins will take on the big-back role and the Rebels hope Swinney can overcome injuries. Senior Eugene Brazley returns after ranking third on the team with 261 yards (no starts). A fourth option who could rise up the chart is sophomore D’Vaughn Pennamon. Pennamon didn’t start a game last season and only averaged 2.9 yards per attempt but showed flashes of being a much-needed bruiser and can fit that role at 235 pounds, 25 pounds heavier than Wilkins.
The run game could be a strength, though the only way to go is up for the unit from 2016. That largely depends on Wilkins returning after a year away from game speed and Swinney avoiding injury.
The decision to play Patterson raised questions. There were good arguments for both sides, but after the Rebels lost to Vanderbilt or Mississippi State and couldn’t sneak into a bowl game, the detractors might have won the argument.
It did, however, give Patterson starting experience. The buzz died some in the final two losses, but what fans will take into 2017 is the comeback win Patterson led at Texas A&M. He threw for 338 yards on 25 of 42 passing with a pair of touchdowns, including the highlight Johnny Manziel-like escape pattern that started all of those comparisons.
Patterson also ran for 64 yards on 15 attempts in that game, something else he will bring to the huddle. His legs proved a blessing and a curse last season. His escapability is impressive and he can be dangerous if the pocket collapses. But he has to learn when to use which weapon.
Patterson will have plenty of receiving options and what should be an improved front line. He needs to learn to showcase his NFL arm first and Manziel-ish talents second. Game experience should make the transition to opening-day starter easier, but the teams he faced weren’t Alabama, Auburn and LSU.
Patterson was the No. 1-ranked quarterback in a stacked 2016 class that included Jacob Eason and Jalen Hurts.
If Patterson is able to learn from mistakes and improve on what worked in the final three games of 2016, he will be the strength of the offense and potentially one of the best in the SEC.
Ole Miss has established a pipeline. It survived losing Laquon Treadwell. Now it will have to do without Evan Engram. The Rebels have had some of the best receivers in the country the past couple of seasons and will again trot guys out there who should continue the trend.
Engram and Damore’ea Stringfellow led the team in receiving last season. Quincy Adeboyejo was fourth. Despite those three of the top four receivers gone to the NFL, the Rebels have a ton of firepower returning, so much it makes it difficult to judge who will be the best.
The leading returner is sophomore Van Jefferson, the most improved Rebel in 2016. But sophomore A.J. Brown, 6-1, 225 pounds, might be the SEC’s best combination of skill and power. As a true freshman, Brown had 29 catches for 412 yards and two touchdowns.
DaMarkus Lodge will be a junior, a talented 2015 recruit who could have a breakout season. Markell Pack is a senior who has quietly produced when called on. Perhaps the biggest buzz is for another sophomore, 6-4 Oxford-native D.K. Metcalf. Metcalf had two highlight reel touchdown catches in the first two games of 2016 before breaking his foot and missing the rest of the season. If there is a version of Randy Moss in the SEC, it’s Metcalf, who can lead the Rebels or the conference in receiving.
The receiving group will again be among the best in the conference.
The Rebels ranked No. 62 in the country last season in red zone offense, scoring on 52 of 62 trips. Sixteen were touchdown passes and 15 field goals.
There were too many sweeps and dropbacks close to the end zone. The return of Wilkins to the run game should make it less of an adventure from the 1-yard line and Pennamon can aid that effort as well if he can prove to run through a few tackles from close range.
Better or worse in 2017?
Patterson’s three games should pay dividends. The line should be improved and the running game will be at full strength, something it never was even before the 2016 season began. The runners are the key to improvement. It’s tough to ask the passing game to be much better than it was, but that is a possibility if defenses have to respect the run.
The better the run game, the more dangerous Patterson can be throwing it around the yard to a very talented and diverse set of skills.
Hugh Freeze can coach offense. The Rebels have averaged 30 or more points per game in four of his five seasons. The year they didn’t, in 2014, they still scored 28.3.
The Rebels should again have one of the most potent offenses in the country. The slightest rushing improvement will add to its potency.