Spring practice starts today, and the Rebels have several questions to address on the team. While things are pretty set among the starting unit, this Spring offers and opportunity for depth to accumulate before the most heralded recruiting class in school history even arrives at the University. We address some of those questions here.
QB: Can Mikhail Miller be capable as primary backup?
I'm not sure the coaches would move Barry Brunetti into the Randall Mackey role, but it would be nice for them to be able to do so if it's warranted. For that to work, Miller has to prove capable of running the offense in the event that Bo Wallace went down. He doesn't have to be better than Brunetti. He just has to be as capable. I think he's got a shot. From what people say, he has a strong arm and is a talented runner. I had low expectations when he made it to campus, but early reports are that he has worked hard to refine his ability.
RB: Who will be the primary spell to Jeff Scott?
It appears to be a two horse race between Jaylen Walton and Itavius Mathers for secondary carries. The freshmen backs are quite different from one another and could simply be used situationally, but I think they'll find one to lean on more than the other. Walton offers nice speed and shiftiness like Scott, but Mathers is a more straight-ahead runner (who obviously showed good speed against Pittsburgh). It's really either back's game.
WR: Who separates from the pack in the slot?
Cody Core, Collins Moore, Philander Moore, and Korvic Neat are the receivers on campus who could get that fourth spot behind Donte Moncrief, Vince Sanders, and Ja-Mes Logan. With the inbound receivers the Rebels have, that group of four could get lose in the shuffle. In order to avoid that, they need to do all they can in the Spring to show the coaches they can be counted on to move the chains. Moore is out for the Spring after shoulder surgery, but the other three have their chances. I don't expect any of the three to lock down playing time over some of the talented recruits, but stranger things have happened.
TE: Can Christian Morgan be an adequate blocker in year one?
Obviously, the hope is that Morgan is good all-around, but if there's only one thing he can do as a freshman, the coaches hope it's "block well." The Rebels will have other receiving threats. They just need a capable sixth blocker to help keep Bo Wallace upright or get the backs around the edge. If Morgan can do that, he will have had a successful freshman year.
OL: Can a guard step up to fill the right guard spot before Laremy Tunsil gets to campus?
Obviously it's unlikely that a true freshman will start on the offensive line, but Laremy Tunsil isn't the average freshman lineman. If Patrick Junen, Justin Bell, or the other guards vying for the void left by AJ Hawkins want to be sure they'll get that job, they should put in as much effort as they can now. They need to have a big leg up on Tunsil when he arrives this Summer.
DE: Will Channing Ward enter the fall with a leg up on Robert Nkemdiche?
Two years ago, the Rebels signed five star linebacker C.J. Johnson, who was moved to defensive end. Last year, five star defensive end Channing Ward joined the mix. This year, Hugh Freeze made national headlines by signing Robert Nkemdiche, yet another five star end and the top overall player in high school football. Johnson made a name for himself last year, getting 55 tackles, 8.0 tackles for a loss, 6.5 sacks, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown. Nearly everyone expects Robert Nkemdiche to step in right away and produce on the defensive line this fall. But what about Ward, who himself had 22 tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss as a true freshman reserve at end? The capable freshman will have yet another year of practice and conditioning to become an SEC-ready defensive end. If he has a productive enough Spring, we at the Cup feel that he could secure a starting spot up front, at least early on.
DT: Who wins? Lavon Hooks or Bryon Bennett?
Sophomore Issac Gross should have nose tackle locked in for as long as he is at Ole Miss, but what about the other tackle spot on the defensive line? Will Lavon Hooks, regarded as one of the top junior college prospects in the country this year, or Bryon Bennett, who started six games at the position last year, win the job?
CB: Will Nick Brassell take a step back having spent little time at corner in JUCO?
At East Mississippi Community College, Nick Brassell played in 10 games, logging 47 receptions for 656 yards and six touchdowns. Brassell though will not play wide receiver for Ole Miss, at least not all that much. He'll be a defensive back, a position he only played in three games at EMCC. Of course, this all assumes that he can become academically eligible in time, something which we at the Cup aren't yet counting on.
S: How does Chief Brown progress?
Chief played in 12 of the Rebels' 13 games last year, earning one start. He had a smattering of good play here and there, including a forced fumble against Vanderbilt, a red zone fumble recovery against Central Arkansas, and a touchdown saving interception against Tulane. With Cody Prewitt, Trae Elston, and now Antonio Conner looking to handle much of the safety duty, where does Brown fit? Can he elevate his game to become an even more prominent part of the D?
LB: Can D.T. Shackelford become a reliable part of the rotation?
This is probably the question every Ole Miss fan wants answered. Will his knee be finally healthy enough for him to suit up for the red and blue? Will the former Chucky Mullins award winner be back on the field?