I'm not exactly breaking news when I tell you that Ole Miss' run blocking sucked in 2014. But let's use some advanced stats from Football Outsiders to illustrate just how awful it was:
- The Rebel O-line was credited with just 2.35 yards per carry on standard downs, ranking them 122nd out of 128 FBS teams.
- In power run situations (third or fourth down with two or fewer yards to go), Ole Miss ran for a first down on just 65 percent of its attempts. That puts them at 85th in the country and third-worst in the SEC.
- Rebel ball carriers were tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage on an absurd 27.6 percent of their carries. Only four teams in the FBS were worse.
So it's no surprise that when Hugh Freeze announced his starting O-line earlier this week, it included a shakeup among the interior blockers. Justin Bell will keep his spot at right guard, but reserve offensive tackle Robert Conyers will slide over to replace Ben Still at center.
And Javon Patterson, a five-star freshman who could be the key to unlocking a much-improved ground game, will start at left guard.
Patterson's kinda the only option left
Last year's starter, Aaron Morris, is still working his way back from a torn ACL that ended his 2014 season. But Morris was so bad at run blocking at times last year that it's easy to presume he would have lost his starting job anyway, injured or not. Freeze said earlier this week that Morris is "back," but that "we just haven't seen enough to move him in front of someone."
The job was all set to go to sophomore Rod Taylor -- who, despite struggling to grasp offensive tasks more complicated than "block the dude in front of you," impressed last season as a freshman -- but an idiotic locker room boxing mishap a couple weeks back left him with a torn labrum. Freeze seems optimistic that Taylor will be able to play through it after a few weeks' rest, but the concept of an offensive guard pushing around 300-pound SEC nose tackles with a bum shoulder just doesn't seem realistic.
But Patterson's not a bad last option to have
Guys like DaMarkus Lodge, D.J. Jones and Tony Bridges were the talk of the 2015 Rebel crootin class, but Patterson was actually the highest-rated prospect of the bunch, per 247's composite rankings. Those same rankings had him as the best player in the state of Mississippi, the best offensive guard in the nation and the 32nd best player in the nation regardless of position.
The numbers 6'3, 307 next to Patterson's name on the roster say he's physically ready for major college football, and the head start he got as an early enrollee (he was on campus for spring workouts) means he's further along mentally than your average freshman.
"He's been around (so long), I think he's a sophomore or something," Dan Werner told The Clarion-Ledger in August. "I forget that he's a true freshman. He's in there competing against Robert Nkemdiche and guys like that. Welcome to the SEC, I guess."
Patterson could help launch a dynamic ground game
Plugging in one freshman offensive guard isn't something that by itself sparks radical revitalization of a rushing attack. But Patterson isn't the only variable change in play here:
- Chad Kelly has better arm strength than Bo Wallace, which, when combined with vertical threats on the outside (Laquon Treadwell and Damore'ea Stringfellow) as well as up the seams (Evan Engram and Quincy Adeboyejo), should force defenses into more cover 2 and cover 3 looks.
- Not only will safeties be playing back, but Freeze's spread system forces linebackers and nickelbacks towards the periphery of the field. Throw in a regular mix of read-option plays (which essentially block an extra defender without actually blocking him), and the Ole Miss offense should see plenty of advantageous five-defenders-vs.-five-blockers-in-the-box looks.
- Freeze has committed to getting back towards the offensive tempo that defined his team at Arkansas State, which means those bigger interior defenders will be sucking wind more often than they were in 2014.
- Now that middle of the defense is isolated and fatigued, the Rebs can hit them with something that's been missing since Freeze took over in 2012: bigger, powerful backs. Instead of alternating Jaylen Walton with the similarly diminutive I'Tavius Mathers, Freeze can bludgeon the defense with the 6'1, 214-pound Jordan Wilkins and the 5'11, 222-pound Akeem Judd.
A lot of things have to happen for that sequence to play out, but it all starts with Patterson being able to consistently win one-on-one battles with SEC defenders in the trenches. If he can, the Ole Miss offense could become a completely different animal.