The talk of Ole Miss spring practice so far has been redshirt freshman running back Eric Swinney, who's physical running style has drawn almost daily praise from coaches and media members alike. With starter Jaylen Walton having scampered nimbly through his four years of eligibility, the common presumption has been that Jordan Wilkins and Akeem Judd would be competing for the starting job in 2016. But the hype coming out of camp seems to be fostering the perception that a healthy Swinney, who missed all of last year with a stress fracture, is running his way towards the top of the depth chart.
Is there really a backfield shakeup afoot?
Swinney is grabbing plenty of attention in practice.
"He looked very good today," Freeze told the Ole Miss Spirit after Tuesday's practice. "He hasn't gotten a ton of carries, but today he looked quick, powerful and strong. He finished runs well. I liked what I saw."
The 5'9 Swinney has reportedly trucked at least one defender in each of the first four padded practices, his latest victim being A.J. Moore on Tuesday, according to Parish Alford.
"I think all of our guys, they're all up over 200 pounds now, and they all have certain things, but [Swinney] seems to finish runs with a certain amount of authority for sure that we might not have seen so much of in the past," Freeze said. "I've always felt like if he gets healthy he has a chance to be a special kid."
Wilkins and Judd can no doubt lay the wood themselves (see Example A and Example B), but they also weigh about 15 to 20 pound more than Swinney. If the faster, more agile guy is bringing the same power as the big fellas, you have to like his chances of establishing himself on top of the depth chart as a do-it-all guy.
"He's not scared to lay his head down and run someone over, and at the same time, he's not scared to juke someone," Chad Kelly told Alford.
Nah, he's definitely not scared to juke someone.
Van Jefferson (@VanJefferson12) March 22, 2016
But let's not hand Swinney the starting job just yet.
It's not uncommon to see these offseason heroes fizzle out when actual football starts—last season, Derrick Jones and C.J. Hampton won most improved in spring practice—so let's not go overboard about a few nifty runs. Swinney is technically a freshman, after all, and he still has plenty to learn about the offensive system.
"It's going to take longer for him to get the feel for the game, but he's picking it up really well," Swag Kelly told Alford this week.
It's easy to oversimplify the running back position as take the ball, run the ball, but there plenty of nuances, particularly with protection schemes. Those schemes are difficult enough in a pass-happy, fast-paced attack like Freeze's, but they're complicated even more this season by the loss of Laremy Tunsil and Fahn Cooper—backs will be called on to do a lot of chipping out of the backfield to help the new O-tackles.
Judd and Wilkins can potentially make up the gap in athleticism with their familiarity with the offense.
Judd has the momentum.
This time last year, we were actually hearing a bunch of hype about Judd's hard-hitting runs in spring practice, yet he got off to a relatively slow start in 2015. His role steadily increased, however, overtaking Wilkins as the primary change-of-pace back over the second half of the season.
Over the final seven games, Judd tallied 47 carries for 5.51 yards per pop, more than Walton's 4.47-yard average and nearly double Wilkins in terms of carries. Judd showed some shiftiness and speed to go along with his power, like when he shamed this helpless Auburn defender.
Not that we'll get a "starter" anytime soon.
The theatrical quarterback "competition" last offseason underscored Freeze's distaste for depth chart proclamations—an annoyance for fans but a practical motivation device for those players involved in a competition. And Freeze has even more license to keep things unsettled at running back, where instability doesn't have the same stigma as it does at quarterback.
The backfield favorite will probably be revealed in the box score, not a hierarchal list. It wouldn't surprise me in the least to go into the first few games with "or" still separating names on the depth chart, but someone will eventually start to earn the bulk of the carries.
Don't be surprised if Swinney becomes that somebody. Jaylen Walton, who called Swinney "the future back of Ole Miss," said he could see the freshman moving into a feature role as early as this season.
"He runs with forward lean, he runs powerful," Walton told the Cup earlier this week. "He has great acceleration through the hole. Once he gets the ball, there's not much dancing or hopping. Once he sees a crease open up, he hits it, and I mean he hits it fast. He can pick up yards after contact. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. His potential is really high."
That's high praise from a guy who knows a little something about running the ball in Oxford.