Mark Dodson and I'Tavius Mathers have transferred out. Eugene Brazley, Akeem Judd, Jaylen Walton and Jordan Wilkins return. Eric Swinney is the lone incoming running back. So still plenty of depth and experience in the Ole Miss backfield, right? Well, you're right, but that doesn't always equal success. The 2014 season was a testament to that.
To say that the running game is important in 2015 is the perfect opportunity for you to say "no shit, bro." The Rebels finished 10th in rushing in the SEC last season, averaging a measly 167.7 yards per game. It's not dead last, so that's a start, but the running game directly effected the passing game. Once opposing defenses noticed the inability to run the ball, especially at the QB position with the zone read, Ole Miss became very one-dimensional.
But, enough about last season. 2015 is year four for Hugh Freeze and he has some excellent pieces in the backfield. Jaylen Walton returns as your leading rusher (586 yards, five touchdowns) and told OMSpirit's Ben Garrett that he's going after Dexter McCluster's single season total of 1,169 yards (Kayo Dottley holds the Ole Miss single season record with 1,312 yards). The 5'8, 166-pound tailback will have some company eager to make a difference this season.
Sophomore Jordan Wilkins (361 yards, one touchdown) is looking to continue to return to the form that saw him pursued by everyone in high school before a devastating leg injury set him back. The 6'1, 209-pound Memphis native showed some good things last season, but still needs to finish runs and work on his pass protection in order to log more PT. Also back for more is the sophomore from New Orleans, Eugene Brazley. The 5'9, 189-pound burner got very little playing time (26 carries, 128 yards) but was able to show the coaches his unique blend of quickness and strength.
The two wildcards and potential breakout candidates this season are junior college transfer Akeem Judd and four-star incoming freshman Eric Swinney. Judd, the 6'0, 220-pound junior, will be counted on heavily this season to be the big back that Ole Miss has been missing for quite some time. In two years at Georgia Military College, Judd ran for 1,021 yards and nine touchdowns despite nagging injuries and splitting carries with the No. 1 JUCO player in the country and current Auburn Tiger, Jovon Robinson.
Swinney, a highly-touted recruit out of Tyrone, Ga. is a rare balance of power and speed. At 5'10 and reportedly hovering around 200 now (186 in high school), Swinney's best attribute might be his downhill running style. This compliments his power as he runs with great pad level and also has the speed to get upfield quickly and turn on the jets. Look for Swinney to get plenty of chances to make a difference in his freshman campaign as Freeze is going to look for just about anything to spark the run game this season after things were miserable last year.
So what does all this mean? Can these guys "fix" the run game? Well, one of the most important factors is those five guys up front who block the other guys who are trying to tackle our guys. Another year together up front should benefit the big uglies and JUCO transfer Fahn Cooper is in his second season at right tackle. We've mentioned it before that the second year is usually the time for the light bulb to come on for a lot of junior college transfers and I look for that to be the case for Cooper this season. It's also another year for guys like Rod Taylor to get better and grow into their body and newcomer Javon Patterson to try and break into the starting lineup. Once Laremy Tunsil gets back from injury, you have to think he will pick up right where he left off. He seems to think so.
As of right now, Walton is the No. 1 running back heading into this weekend's Grove Bowl, but he could very well be standing on the sidelines for most of it. Walton has proven himself for the past three seasons (1,227 yards, 12 TDs) and there's no reason to risk an injury. Behind him will be Wilkins and Judd battling for the role of sledgehammer. They are both over 200 pounds and are capable of bringing that physicality to the run game. Behind them will be Brazley and Swinney who can both be used as a change of pace back when spelling either Wilkins or Judd.
So in order to improve the run game in 2015, there are a number of factors and it's not just having a great running back. An experienced and improving offensive line (despite the injuries) and
eventual starting quarterback, Chad Kelly, should greatly improve things on the ground this fall in Oxford. With the O-line meshing and building chemistry and Kelly having the ability to tuck it and run, the defense will be kept on their toes with the zone read and the fellas in the backfield will have more opportunities to bust open long runs and keep the Rebels out of 2nd-and-long.
It will be interesting for sure. It always is with Ole Miss.