Fall practice officially opened in Oxford on Wednesday, resuming in earnest a number of important position battles. The Ole Miss coaching staff now has one month of practices to finalize a depth chart heading into the Sept. 5 opener.
The good news is that unlike spring practice, which saw damn near half the team sidelined with injuries, the fall competitions will be close to full strength. In a press conference following the first practice, Hugh Freeze said that the only players sitting out are offensive lineman Aaron Morris and Talbot Buys and freshman running back Eric Swinney. Laremy Tunsil and Laquon Treadwell are both full participants(!), as are running backs Jordan Wilkins and Eugene Brazely and wideouts Quincy Adeboyejo, Cody Core and Markell Pack.
It'll be no surprise that four of the five position battles listed in this post come on the offensive side of the ball. Outside of middle linebacker, the defense has virtually no question marks (there's still something to be decided in the D-line rotation and among the cornerbacks, but nothing major). The offense, however, has to replace Bo Wallace at quarterback, find out who that replacement will be throwing to and fix 2014's god-awful rushing attack.
Chad Kelly is gonna be Ole Miss' starting quarterback, y'all. It may not be in the season opener against UT-Martin, but by the time the Rebs pull into Tuscaloosa in Week 3, Swaggy C will be taking the field with the first-team offense.
Ryan Buchanan will open practice as the starter and both Kelly and Devante Kincade will get reps with the first team, but that's more posturing by Hugh Freeze than anything else. Kelly's a self-entitled asshole and Freeze doesn't want to jumbo size that arrogance by handing him the starting job right out of the gates, so Swaggy is gonna get humbled a bit by spending his spring break on a mission trip and running wind sprints and going through a "quarterback competition."
But unless he shows up at The Library with an assault rifle between now and September, he'll win the job. That's because any chance the Rebs have at a big year relies on Chad being behind center. Ole Miss ain't Bama, and they're not gonna get to Atlanta with a game manager at quarterback. Given the terrible run game, Freeze has to be able to stretch the field with the vertical passing game, and that doesn't seem to be something Buchanan is capable of. Swaggy's gunslinger mentality makes him a bigger risk on (in terms of turnovers) and off (in terms of jackassery) the field, but it's a risk Freeze has to take.
Because he's a cyborg, Treadwell has officially been cleared to practice (Freeze said he could have actually turned Treadwell loose in the spring). But after that, the receiver depth chart is a question mark -- not for lack of options, but for an absurd abundance of them.
Cody Core is the favorite to start opposite Treadwell. But for as much as he gets praised for his consistency, last year's numbers don't actually bear that out: after blowing up for 236 yards and four touchdowns in his first three games, Core had just 322 yards and one touchdown over the final 10 games, never going over 50 yards in one sitting.
The ideal candidate to start at the two spot is Demore'ea Stringfellow, but inconsistent route-running coupled with a spot of trouble with the police have seemingly pushed him towards the back of the competition. He flashed dominance at the Grove Bowl, so let's see if a strong fall can push him back towards the top of the rotation.
It'll also be interesting to see what Adeboyejo does in the slot position. He finished what was supposed to be his breakout season in 2014 with just 313 yards and one touchdown. But one could make the argument that as a vertical-threat guy, Adeboyejo was affected disproportionally to his teammates by Dr. Bo's oft-injured shoulder. Swag Kelly's rocket laser arm and who-gives-a-fuck-I'm-goin-deep mentality might be exactly what Adeboyejo needs to finally break out.
The coaches will also get their first look at four-star croots DaMarkus Lodge and Van Jefferson. Throw in Markell Pack and this is an insanely competitive position group.
Oh and don't sleep on Derrick Jones, whose transformation from corner to wideout is apparently going much better this season than last.
The backfield depth chart is pretty much locked: Jaylen Walten, Jordan Wilkins, Akeem Judd, in that order (Swinney is out of the picture with a likely season-ending injury and D.K. Buford has switched from corner to running back to fill the void). So this competition isn't so much about listed hierarchy as it is vying for touches, particularly for Wilkins. This offense is desperate for a bigger back that can finish runs between the tackles and the 6'1, 214-pound Wilkins flashed that ability last season. If he can demonstrate that consistently in August practice, he'll carve out a bigger share of the pie come September.
At the end of the day, though, Wilkins' touches probably rely more on the competency of the O-line than his performance in practices. In order to hit the holes up the middle, there have to be, ya know, holes. Otherwise you have to pitch outside to Walten and hope he does this:
The ineptitude of the O-line's interior meant the backs had to go outside as frequently as a drunk chain smoker taking cig breaks at a house party. So yea, the Rebs return a pair of veteran starters in Aaron Morris and Justin Bell, but they've been too ineffective for that to really mean anything.
Which means their young understudies have opportunities to steal their jobs. First there's former four-star Rod Taylor, who saw a lot of the field as a freshman in 2014. Inconsistency kept him from locking down a spot in the starting lineup, but he showed the potential to be a starter. He's much better moving in space than the Morris and Bell, something you can't overlook in an offense that pulls its guards damn near every other play.
Then there's five-star freshman Javon Patterson, who, according to Freeze's Wednesday presser, will be in the mix early and often this season. Sure, he's a freshman, but he's also had a bit of a head start: not only was he on the field for spring camp, but as one of just eight healthy O-lineman during that time, he's already had a ton of reps.
Freeze said Morris (who's still recovering from ACL surgery) will be limited at the start of fall practice, which opens the door for Taylor and Patterson.
With D.T. Shackleford's Van Wilder-length college career finally over, Freeze bumped C.J. Johnson from defensive end to a stand-up job at middle linebacker. Johnson seems like a lock as the starter at this point, but Freeze has made it clear that he wants a frequent rotation at the position.
Surprisingly enough, the lead candidate for that gig seems to be three-star freshman Shawn Curtis. He'll be going up against the undersized but athletic Christian Russell, a former Juco transfer who tallied 23 tackles last year. There's also talk of DeMarquis Gates sliding from outside to inside if he's needed.