When you look at the 2014 season from a broad prospective it was a huge success for the Hugh Freeze and the Ole Miss Rebels. As you know, College Gameday came to the Grove for the first time and they went on to beat then-number one Alabama for the first time in, like, forever later that afternoon. They also found themselves ranked in top-four in the first ever College Football Playoff poll and won a game in front the largest crowd to ever watch a football game in the state of Texas.
All of that sounds great, and it was. But one glaring weakness that effected the Rebels, especially down the stretch, was the running game. Losers of four of its last six games, Ole Miss rushed for an average of just under 89 yards per game in those losing efforts.
The Rebel rushing attack finished 77th in the nation in rushing yards per game, which pins them in-between Central Michigan and Cincinnati while falling two spots behind Big-10 bottom-dweller Purdue. Ole Miss finished 11th in the SEC in team yards per carry, a category in which the Rebels have never found themselves in the top 10 during the Hugh Freeze era. In the regular season they averaged 167 yards per game, thanks mostly to a 400 yard performance against the Blue Hose of Presbyterian, but against conference opponents that average plummeted to just 143 yards per game.
They clearly need increased production in the running game, but where will that production come from?
What they have
Jaylen Walton, who rushed for 586 yards on 106 carries during his junior campaign, returns as the starter. He's a tough runner for his size (5'8, 172 pounds) and has the lateral quickness paired with the straight line speed that makes him a home run threat every time he touches the ball. I'm sure all of you remember this:
He also showed that he can be effective catching the football out of the backfield, tallying 206 yards receiving a year ago, especially when it mattered most as he was on the receiving end of arguably the most important touchdown in the Freeze era.
Despite his best, and sometimes successful, effort to overcome his size, it somewhat limits his ability to get tough yards between the tackles and after contact. That caused Ole Miss to have to get creative in short yardage situations to alleviate the lack of a power run game. This could also be a result of average-at-best offensive line play, but I digress.
The Rebels need Walton to be as, if not more, effective than he was a year ago. However, they also need an effective power pack to compliment his style of play. That's where Akeem Judd and Jordan Wilkins are brought into the equation.
We'll start with the more proven commodity in Wilkins. The consensus four-star recruit out of the Volunteer state finished second on the team in rushing as a red-shirt freshman. Though his total numbers don't jump off the page, the 6'1, 215-pound back averaged 6.9 yards per carry. He's a bigger back that has good speed and agility and can even throw a perfect pass for a touchdown when the moment calls for it.
Judd is a bit of an unknown right now. He did not see any action in 2014 due to an injury but has the size at 5'11, 222-pounds that Ole Miss fans have been begging for at the running back position. As a member of the 2014 signing class, Judd was ranked as the top JUCO running back by Rivals.com. He has battled the injury bug some in his career but is healthy and ready to go for the 2015 season.
Eugene Brazley ads quality depth to a position that desperately needs it and D.K. Buford has recently made the switch over to running back.
What they're missing
Mark Dodson and I'Tavius Mathers have transferred out of the Ole Miss program. Both were promising recruits out of high school but neither had any significant impact on the field a year ago. Those transfers don't have major repercussions from a production standpoint, but they do take away from the quality depth they had at the position a year ago. That depth took another hit recently when prized recruit Eric Swinney suffered a stress fracture that required surgery and will likely sideline him for the 2015 season.
What to expect
The Ole Miss rushing attack simply has to improve if they want to meet their lofty expectations for the 2015 season. They have a proven senior running back that has a ton of game experience paired with a couple of big body complementary backs. As a result, you should expect the Rebels to maintain their offensive identity by getting its play-makers in space but you should also expect them to have the ability to go inside when needed -- so long as the interior of the offensive line improves, of course.