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Ole Miss football 2016 spring practice: The 5 biggest questions heading into camp

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Who joins DeMarquis Gates at linebacker is the question on the top of everyone's list, but we'll also begin to get answers on Shea Patterson's role and the makeup of the safety rotation.

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It used to be that a good chunk of Ole Miss' spring practices were open to the media, giving football-fiending fans a two-week, nonstop dose straight to the vein. But with Hugh Freeze following a growing national trend of limiting spring access, the hits will be few and far between this time around. Not only has media availability been trimmed to just three of the fifteen practices, but the annual spring game has been cut all together. The stated reason is the work being done on Vaught-Hemingway's turf, though Freeze, who has never tried to hide his distaste for concept of the spring game, probably wasn't all that upset about calling it off.

Even though we're not getting daily updates like we used to, there's still plenty of info to be gleaned from spring practice, which starts on Wednesday. Let's run through five questions we're hoping the next two weeks will at least begin to answer.

1. Who the hell is gonna play linebacker?

UPDATE: Oregon State graduate transfer Rommel Mageo, who led his team in tackles last season, just announced he's coming to Ole Miss. He'll be immediately eligable. Helloooooooo starting middle linebacker.

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The failure to add much in the way of linebacker talent on Signing Day means D-coordinator Dave Wommack is probably going to have to find a viable rotation from the guys that are already on campus. The only sure bet is DeMarquis Gates, who led the 2015 defense in tackles as the stinger (outside backer) but will get reps this spring as the Mike.

After Gates, we're left with some assortment of Shawn Curtis, Ray Ray Smith, Terry Caldwell, Tayler Polk and three-star early enrollee Donta Evans, none of whom jump out as a great option. In an interview with the Ole Miss Spirit earlier this week, Wommack also said that redshirt freshman tight end Willie Hibbler will be getting some reps at the Mike spot (though he'll miss the first week with a lingering hand injury) and wouldn't rule out the possibility of Armani Linton or another bigger-bodied DB moving down to stinger. If nothing else, we'll have a better sense of who's in the competition by the time spring ball wraps up.

2. How will the safety depth chart shake out?

Speaking of Linton, he'll also factor into the competition at safety, a position that has to replace the loss of Trae Elston and Mike Hilton. With Tony Conner still recovering from offseason surgery, plenty of the young guys will get a chance to fight for a spot.

C.J. Hampton will get first crack at one of the safety spots, though given his struggles last season, expect Linton, the Moore twins and redshirt freshman Montrell Custis to get ample opportunities to supplant him. With Conner sidelined, Zedrick Woods, who really stepped into a contributing role late last season, will hold down the Husky spot. Wommack said Woods will be joined early by Custis and three-star early enrollees Greg Eisworth and Myles Hartsfield.

Come fall camp, you'll also see four-star newcomers Deontay Anderson and Jaylon Jones join the safety competition.

3. Who's Chad Kelly's backup?

The Rebs easily have the best returning QB in the conference, but the depth behind him is suddenly shaky. With DeVante Kincade transferring to Grambling State and Ryan Buchanan quitting the sport altogether, redshirt freshman Jason Pellerin and five-star super croot Shea Patterson are the only other guys on scholarship. As talented as Shea is, it's hard to imagine him taking firm control of the primary backup gig during his first camp. I expect Pellerin, a former three-star with a rocket of an arm, to take most of the No. 2 reps during the spring, with Patterson getting his first real chance to make a move during fall practice.

4. Who plays tackle until Greg Little shows up?

Freeze has to find replacements for both of his starting OTs, but how many of his options will actually be available during the spring? Five-star freshman Greg Little, the favorite to step in for Laremy Tunsil on the left side, and four-star Bryce Mathews, who will likely compete on the right side, won't be on campus until the summer. Guard Rod Taylor was also expected to work out at left tackle, but he'll miss spring workouts while he recovers from a shoulder injury.

Look for redshirt freshman Alex Givens and sophomore Sean Rawlings, who started seven games at RT during Tunsil's suspension, to be the main guys in spring camp. Jeremy Liggins will get a shot to finally find a permanent home on the line, and senior Talbot Buys will get some reps on the left side.

5. How will the rest of the early enrollees factor in?

I've mentioned Shea Patterson, Donta Evans, Greg Eisworth and Myles Harsfield, but there are four other freshmen newcomers on campus for the spring. The most notable of these is Benito Jones, a five-star who will get an immediate crack at an interior D-line trying to replace Robert Nkemdiche. Gabe Angel is a stud tight end who may be an immediate backup to Evan Engram, Eli Johnson will get plenty of action at center with Robert Conyers still recovering from a torn ACL, and Charles Wiley is an athletic weak-side DE who could be an eventual replacement for Marquis Haynes.

Injuries

All of these guys are expected to be ready for the season opener against FSU but will be limited or out during spring ball.

  • Fadol Brown will be limited as he recovers from offseason foot surgery.
  • Tony Conner is out due to followup surgery on that pesky torn meniscus.
  • Issac Gross is out while he continues to recover from last year's season-ending neck injury.
  • Rod Taylor is out while he rehabs the shoulder injury that limited him throughout 2015.
  • Robert Conyers is out while he recovers from the torn ACL he suffered in October.