Dave Wommack has always espoused a "best 11 guys" approach on defense, and nowhere is that more evident than in the secondary. The Rebels return three exceptional veteran starters (Mike Hilton, Trae Elston, and Tony Conner), a versatile veteran backup (Chief Brown) four talented freshmen lettermen (CJ Hampton, Kendarius Webster, AJ and CJ Moore), two JUCO superstars (Tee Shepard and Tony Bridges), and some exciting depth guys (Kailo Moore, Carlos Davis, Derrick Jones[maybe?]). Out of that group of 13, there are very few who are limited to one position. Mike Hilton's versatility is unparalleled... Tee Shepard and Chief Brown have both been mentioned as possible Huskies... Tony Conner could move to Rover or Stinger LB... Trae Elston or Tony Bridges could move to Free Safety... the Moore twins could very well shuffle around... the possibilities are staggering.
In my wild-ass-guess of an opinion, the first domino in getting the secondary sorted out is the 4-way battle at the cornerback positions. I can't tell you how many times I've heard that Tony Bridges and Tee Shepard are going to lock down the starting corner spots. I guess that's possible, but Mike Hilton was arguably the best #2 cornerback in the country last year, and Kendarius Webster was the best freshman I can remember at his position since I've been watching Ole Miss football. Those guys are going to be hard to unseat. Once the situation at cornerback is sorted out, it's anyone's guess as to how the rest of the positions might be affected. Just for a minute though, let's sit back and appreciate the fact that four SEC-caliber athletes are going to compete for the starting cornerback positions at Ole Miss. It's been a while since that happened.
**Late edit: Just as I was polishing off this article, Freeze indicates in the pre-Spring press conference that Mike Hilton will start out Spring practice at safety. Well, fuck a duck.**
So I just got done describing an exciting position battle involving perhaps the best, deepest unit on the team. This is different than that.
Offensive guard has been perhaps the most-maligned unit on the Ole Miss roster for the past two seasons; running between the tackles has been mostly disastrous since midway through the 2013 season, and that deficiency has immeasurably affected offensive production as a whole.
Another bad bit of news is that there really aren't a ton of healthy Guards on campus right now. I count five: returning Senior starter Justin Bell, Sophomore Rod Taylor, Freshman early-enrollee Javon Patterson, redshirt Freshman Jordan Sims, and highly-regarded Senior walk-on Craig Frigo. Aaron Morris and Daronte Bouldin are both rehabbing from surgery.
The good news is that the talent level of the group as a whole should be much higher because of Javon Patterson alone. While he's just a Freshman, the word is that he arrives in better shape, and with a more game-ready set of skills than Rod Taylor did last year. Being enrolled for Spring practice is a huge boon for Patterson as well. While it will be interesting to see what Sims and Frigo contribute this spring, you've got to think that the two starting Guards will be chosen from the trio of Bell, Taylor, and Patterson.
No bones about it: the linebacker position has been absolutely ravaged by graduation. The top 3 linebackers in terms of snaps and tackles are all gone, leaving a newly-recovered Denzel Nkemdiche as the only returner with a start under his belt.
That's not to say that there isn't potential for a good linebacking unit this year-- just a lot of uncertainty. Ole Miss does return a fair amount of athleticism at the position, and also adds at least two new bodies for the Spring. In addition to adding Terry Caldwell, a rangy and active JUCO linebacker, Hugh Freeze announced that CJ Johnson would be moving to Mike linebacker for Spring drills. Though Freeze's comments on the switch seemed tentative, it could be a terrific move. CJ has always stuck me as a player with alarming speed for his defensive end position, and a frame more suited for a linebacker (his high school position) than a lineman.
Johnson will add some competition and fire to what was already shaping up to be an interesting battle at Mike linebacker between Christian Russell and Demarquis Gates. Russell has the most returning experience of anyone outside of Denzel Nkemdiche, and has good size and speed for an SEC run-stopper. Gates has perhaps the higher ceiling, but also has a longer, lighter frame at about 6'2, 215; maybe not ideal for facing power rushing teams. It will be interesting to see whether Gates is placed at one linebacker position to compete for a starting spot, or perhaps learns both spots as a valuable reserve.
Coaches have also indicated that Tayler Polk (apparently that's how his name is spelled?) could find his way into the rotation more regularly this year. As a redshirt Freshman walk-on, Polk was called on to fill in for Serderius Bryant after Bird's ejection from the Boise State game. Polk appeared to do a lot of impressive things for a guy who probably didn't realistically plan on playing in that game.
Ole Miss lost two running backs to transfers this offseason. While those two transfers were probably encouraged to some degree, both Mathers and Dodson were good runners with roles on the team... just not the roles they wanted. And while Jaylen Walton will stand largely unchallenged atop the depth chart, Jordan Wilkins and Akeem Judd look to duke it out as the primary "big back," while Eugene Brazley tries to carve out some niche for himself.
The battle between Judd and Wilkins is particularly interesting, because it's so hard to know what either player can do at this point. Obviously, Akeem Judd was redshirted last year; apparently, coaches wanted him totally healed from a foot injury that hampered his second season of Junior College. But I'm not even sure we have a great idea of Wilkins' abilities, given the weak play at Guard last season. Whomever emerges between Judd and Wilkins will certainly have an important role in getting the Rebels' running game back on track, and will have a leg up on holding off contributions from incoming Freshman Eric Swinney.
While the competition at Offensive Guard is anything but certain, the race to establish some depth at Tackle should be an absolute free-for-all. With superstar Laremy Tunsil out for the Spring, lots of guys will get lots of snaps at both Tackle positions. What's unclear is if anyone is in position to make the coaches confident in their ability to spell Tunsil, or to push Fahn Cooper for his starting spot.
Cooper was far from consistent last year, contributing some real quality starts against good competition, only to be baffled and abused at other points during the season. While it's possible that Cooper suffered from the same growing pains that many JUCO transfers experience, coaches will surely be keeping an eye on guys like Jeremy Liggins, Robert Conyers, Davion Johnson, Christian Morris, and Sean Rawlings. In my opinion it's paramount to the success of the team moving forward that a couple of those five guys end up providing good depth this year, and end up as quality starters in the future.
If I learned anything from writing this article (let's go ahead and say that I did...), it's that this looks like a talented, versatile SEC team, but one with a lot of variables in play. Analyzing position battles wasn't so much "Player X competing with Player Y for the starting spot at Position Z" as it was "Players X and Y will compete at Position Z unless player X can move to Position W because Player Q is also great at Position Z..." There are a lot of moving parts, but I think the coaches finally have access to the depth they need to really compete on a consistent basis. Of course, another exciting thing about Spring football is the surprises that invariably come out of left field, so stay tuned when we talk about Kailo Moore starting at running back, Kendrick Doss unseating Trae Elston at Rover, or whatever... it's gonna be awesome.