Spring is here! Pollen wafts about our breathing passages, flowers begin to peek out from their dormancy, you've got an extra hour in the evenings to do nothing with, and college football optimism abounds! Ole Miss is no exception to this, as the Hugh Freeze Era begins in ernest today with the coach's first ever set of spring drills as an SEC head coach. Four practices - today at 3:30 PM; tomorrow 10:30 AM; Saturday, March 31 and the Grove Bowl, Saturday, April 14 - will be open to the public, and we'd like to encourage all of you who can make it to do so in order to support the players and the new coaching staff as best as we can.
There are a few questions we hope these practices will answer, the first and certainly not least of which being...
Who will throw the ball?
What talent the Rebels do return to the quarterback position this spring isn't much of anything by SEC standards. Randall Mackey, Barry Brunetti, and Zack Stoudt all saw time against our competition last year, with only Mackey showing any semblance of consistency, poise, and athleticism for more than a half of football at a time. Mackey's numbers were 1,112 yards, 7 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. I imagine that, in Freeze's system, that'll improve significantly, only because Freeze likes to run a lot of plays in a game.
You've got to think, then, unless one of those three improves significantly, that Juco All-American (where have we heard that before?) Bo Wallace is the shoe-in to start, barring unforeseen injury or incompetence. I'll be interesting to see how he performs in drills over the next couple of weeks.
Catching the ball shouldn't be much of a problem, on the other hand. The Rebel receiving corps, surprisingly enough, is rather stable. If Nick Brassell is eligible come this fall (fingers crossed), he, Donte Moncrief, Ja-Mes Logan and Vincent Sanders should all be worthy weapons for whomever earns the starting job.
Of course, then there's the question of....
Who will carry the ball?
Obviously, Jeff Scott is our lead back in the Spring, but Hugh Freeze has already made some statements which hint at the idea that the coaching staff will limit his reps in an effort to keep him healthy. He could flourish in this offense, since it is built to take advantage of mismatches brought about by speed and athleticism. There aren't many linebackers in college football who can touch Jeff's speed. After Scott, the primary candidates to get significant touches this Spring are Devin Thomas (a senior who has perhaps been passed over for playing time for far too long) and former South Panola star Nick Parker. Thomas has been a Spring Game standout every year at Ole Miss only to see his playing time during the actual season dwindle significantly. This is his chance to show a new staff that he's the answer for the depleted group of halfbacks on the roster. Whether inbound freshman Itavius Mathers has a large role in his first year is largely contingent upon whether a second back can emerge from the group this Spring. Devin has the best shot at that. Freeze hasn't mentioned many players by name so far, but he has spoken about Nick Parker having lost significant weight since S&C coach Paul Jackson arrived in December. Parker is a big bodied, strong runner but has lacked speed during his time at Ole Miss. If the new staff can build that up, the sophomore project could be a pleasant surprise.
That's all fine and dandy, we suppose, but...
What about blocking?
What about it? Well, with the offensive line, perhaps more than any unit, we'll get to see to what degree our problems were rooted in bad coaching, or lack of talent. We have some bodies; guys that Nutt and Markuson were happy to land. Obviously, they performed very poorly, and it will be interesting to watch what Matt Luke and strength coach Paul Jackson can do to whip this unit into something respectable. As Freeze indicated in a recent press conference, the linemen he's most optimistic about are JUCO transfer Pierce Burton and Calloway product Aaron Morris. Right now, they likely project as the two starting tackles. Morris is bigger than Burton, and already has a year of SEC play under his belt as a starting guard. If Burton and Morris can form a more effective set of bookends than Sowell and Massie, then we're off to a great start. Depth is going to be a huge issue there.
At guard, it seems like we have a lot of size, and a lot of options, but no star talent. Jared Duke, Mitch and Matt Hall (One of whom may or may not be on the team due to a failed drug test? I dunno, we're not gonna tell stories outside of school on this one just yet.), Josh Tatum, and Patrick Junen are all huge guys that will all see plenty of action. Surely, some of these guys will adjust to Freeze's tempo and style better than others, but there's hardly any way to know at this point. Evan Swindall will probably battle AJ Hawkins for the center spot. If Swindall wins, AJ can move to guard, and with his "smaller" build (6'4, 305), he might be at an advantage in an up-tempo offense.
Who on Earth is going to defend?
It'd be swell if Channing Ward were here this spring to see what the already-penciled-in starter at strongside defensive end is capable of. He's not, though, meaning that we'll have to see who amongst Carlos Thompson, Jason Jones, Gerald Rivers, and Cameron Wigham emerge as potential starters at both ends of the defensive line this spring. Defensive tackle isn't necessarily a peachier situation, with Uriah Grant, Carlton Martin, Gilbert Peña, and Bryon Bennett all in the rotation, all of whom underwhelmed significantly last year. You've got to hope that they are able to develop some sort of push during offseason workouts and drills, because they certainly didn't have the "oomph" necessary to compete defensively in this league.
That position group does have the comically large Terrell Brown (6'10", 377 pounds) though, so that's neat.
DT Shackelford is out. Still. That sucks, a lot. Sorry DT. There are some linebackers with size, athleticism, and decent enough experience to compete well enough. CJ Johnson (who may play some DE this spring and, perhaps, this fall), Joel Kight, Mike Marry, and Serderius Bryant will provide enough bodies to rotate around during spring drills. I'm interested to see how well Bryant has progressed since his debut season, in which he was named to the freshmen all-SEC team as well as Phil Steele's third freshman all-America team. Keith Lewis will be out this spring with a hip injury.
Admittedly, though, the Rebel defensive front will be one of the weakest in the Southeastern Conference this fall. The talent gap is just that wide as it stands today. After that front seven, though, there's a better-than-decent secondary. This is certainly the most talent (albeit young talent) that we've had in the defensive secondary since at least 08/09, with Green, Vaughn, Lewis, and Sanford/Brown. Though last year, the unit became injury depleted and downtrodden due to the team's overall performance, at times they showed real improvement in technique and discipline under then-defensive backs coach Keith Burns. Wesley McGriff was probably the most celebrated assistant coach hire made by Hugh Freeze, so if the defense is going to show improvement, it will likely lean on a talented group of well-coached defensive backs. At cornerback, it seems like we have some real talent. If Sawyer switches back to corner, the duo of Sawyer and Wesley Pendelton could be one of the SEC's stronger pairs of shutdown guys. If Sawyer stays at safety, then there's plenty of competition between Senquez Golson, Nick Brassell, Frank Crawford, Cliff Coleman, and Denzel Nkemdiche to fill the other corner slot, plus the nickel slot.
Safety also appears to be a free-for-all, with a lot of good options at strong safety, but no clear options at free, if Sawyer is moved to corner. Aaron Garbutt, Brishen Matthews, Cody Prewitt, Chief Brown, Ivan Nichols, and Denzel Nkemdiche are all guys who will get hard looks for playing time. While this isn't LSU or Alabama's secondary, it's been a long time since we had this many defensive backs who could potentially come in and be effective.
WVTNRebel will be at the opening practices helping us report them to you, the reader. He'll be observing the goings on and reproducing his observations here via fanpost, which we will then upload for the lot of you to read. If you too would like to do this, by all means do so. It'd be great to have a handful of different perspectives on the progress we all hope this team is making. Happy spring football, y'all.