Position-by-position edge: Ole Miss at Florida
Taking a position-by-position look at Ole Miss vs. Florida, here’s what to watch for in Saturday’s showdown between the No. 3 Rebels and No. 25 Gators:
QUARTERBACK – Ole Miss: Chad Kelly is averaging 304.8 yards per game for Ole Miss through Week 4. He’s also managed a solid touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio of 10:3, but two of those picks were thrown last week against Vanderbilt. The Swamp at night is tough on any opposing quarterback, but Kelly has the benefit of a recent victorious trip to Bryant-Denny Stadium under his belt.
The hope in Gator Country is that freshman QB Will Grier’s fourth-quarter heroics are a sign he’s maturing and learning on a fast track. Before the comeback, Grier’s game against Tennessee was likely going to be best remembered for the many passes thrown off the mark. Grier is likely to be under constant pressure against the Rebels.
RUNNING BACKS – Push: Mississippi’s Jaylen Walton has received an increase in carries each week this season. Against Vanderbilt, he logged 133 yards on 21 attempts with a long run of 24 yards. But in goal line situations, Coach Hugh Freeze has started to turn to DT Robert Nkemdiche to carry the ball. Short yardage situations between the 20-yard lines could be trouble for the Rebels this weekend.
Florida’s Kelvin Taylor fought for tough yards and broke off one long run (47 yards) in a 102-yard performance against a good Tennessee run defense. Like the Rebels, the Gators also lack a dependable power back. Freshmen running backs Jordan Cronkrite and Jordan Scarlett did not receive any touches against Tennessee.
WIDE RECEIVERS, TIGHT ENDS – Ole Miss: The Rebels’ receiving corps is one of the best in the SEC, led by five-star talent and go-to target Laquon Treadwell (8 catches, 135 yards vs. Vanderbilt). Even when Treadwell is covered, wide receivers Cody Core, Quincy Adeboyejo (Alabama game hero) and Damore’ea Stringfellow are all capable playmakers. Evan Engram, one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the SEC, is waiting to see his targets increase (5 catches, 68 yards).
Freshman WR Antonio Callaway is making a strong case to become Grier’s go-to receiver for the Gators, especially after his 63-yard touchdown on the final drive against Tennessee. Demarcus Robinson was UF’s top receiver last year (53 receptions, 810 yards), but has yet to top 55 yards in a game this season. New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is incorporating tight ends Jake McGee, C’yontai Lewis (injured) and DeAndre Goolsby into the passing game. McGee was one of the top performers against Tennessee (5 catches, 57 yards).
OFFENSIVE LINE – Push: Between the two lines, Ole Miss leads in experience, but also in absences. As of right now, the Rebels cannot 100 percent count on Justin Bell (knee), Rod Taylor (shoulder) or Laremy Tunsil for Saturday. Tunsil is UM’s best lineman when available, but is being held out due to an NCAA investigation. His replacement, Fahn Cooper was honored this week as the SEC’s top offensive lineman. Freeze recently said “progress has been made” in the Tunsil investigation. He has also told reporters that Bell will try to play and Taylor could get up to 20 snaps.
Most of Florida’s offensive line is learning on the spot week by week, but is relatively healthy. Senior Trip Thurman is dealing with a nagging shoulder injury, but is expected to play. Freshman tackle Martez Ivey missed time earlier this season, but was one of three newcomers to play at the same time against Tennessee.
DEFENSIVE LINE – Push: Based on reputation, this should be in Ole Miss’ column. But when sacks are compared, it’s a Florida advantage. It will have to be considered a push for now.
The Rebels’ “Landshark defense” of recent years made a name for itself by getting to the quarterback, but they have only has three sacks as a team this season. DT Robert Nkemdiche is being talked about as one of the first picks of next year’s NFL draft, and has size and athleticism that make him a nightmare for offensive lines everywhere. He’s one of five returning Ole Miss defensive linemen from last season with significant experience. Saturday against Florida could statistically be the breakout game for the 2015 Ole Miss defensive line.
Senior defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard is doing anything the UF coaches ask of him, and that includes lining up at both tackle and end this season. Bullard is off to a productive start with four sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. If Bullard and defensive ends Alex McCalister and CeCe Jefferson can rattle Kelly, the Gators might be able to slow down the Rebels’ offense.
LINEBACKERS – Florida: Ole Miss was forced to replace three graduated seniors at linebacker this season. C.J. Johnson was converted from defensive end to linebacker in the offseason, but saw time at defensive end again in the Vanderbilt game. Senior LB Denzel Nkemdiche appears to finally be healthy, racking up 14 tackles against the Commodores. Another senior, Christian Russell, is getting a chance to start after being a backup last season.
Tackling has been an issue for all areas of UF’s defense, but the linebackers are athletic and hard-hitting, with the latter getting a boost from S Marcus Maye’s contribution at the position. When Jarrad Davis and Antonio Morrison are on the field, defensive coordinator Geoff Collins can count on his linebackers to make plays anywhere between the sidelines.
SECONDARY – Florida: Mississippi’s secondary suffered a huge blow when S Tony Conner went down with a meniscus tear in his right knee. Conner is an important tackler all over the field in every situation. Of the returning defensive backs, and the Rebels have plenty with experience, S Mike Hilton had the most pass breakups (7) and interceptions (3) last season.
Florida features one of the nation’s top cornerbacks in Vernon Hargreaves III. Hargreaves has been dealing with a back injury, reportedly having visited a chiropractor Friday night before the Tennessee game. Florida coach Jim McElwain expects Hargreaves will play this weekend. It’s a game that the star cornerback talked about in July at SEC Media Days when he mentioned looking forward to a matchup with Treadwell.
UF gets a boost in CB Jalen Tabor’s return after he was suspended against Tennessee. Even without Tabor, and Hargreaves playing through obvious discomfort, the Volunteers did not challenge the Florida secondary (only 19 total passes). UF’s best passing defense performance this season was holding UK QB Patrick Towles to 8-of-24 throwing the ball.