Last week, the crowd in Hoover submitted ballots for the preseason All-SEC teams. The final list included five Rebels: Chad Kelly dominated the voting for first-team quarterback, tight end Evan Engram and DB Tony Conner made the second team, and offensive guard Javon Patterson and defensive end Marquis Haynes landed on the third.
Those aren't the only Ole Miss players who have a shot of landing on the postseason all-conference list, however. Listed below are a handful of guys to watch.
To be clear, I'm not predicting that all of these guys will indeed end up being All-SEC, nor am I factoring in the competition at a given position around the league. This is simply a list of Rebels who I believe have the potential for breakout seasons that could put them in contention.
Rated the No. 1 JUCO defensive tackle in the country when he showed up in Oxford last year, it took Jones most of the 2015 season to get acclimated to the SEC. But he came into his own in the Egg Bowl and Sugar Bowl, notching nine tackles and two sacks. Pro Football Focus, which recently listed him as the best player on the Rebels' 2016 roster, graded him as the sixth-best returning interior D-lineman in the country. Jones was benching 440 and squatting 650 when NFL.com named him one of the strongest players in college football last year, and he's even stronger this season: he said during Media Days that his bench and squat are up to 475 and 670, respectively. Yet at over 300 pounds, he's still athletic enough to dunk a basketball.
Jones will lose some snaps at nose tackle to Issac Gross, who's worked his way back from a neck injury that sidelined him in 2015. But Jones said he's spent his offseason improving his pass rush in order to become an every-down player, which could make it damn hard for D coordinator Dave Wommack to take him off the field. That's a terrifying prospect for SEC QBs considering Jones was already pretty damn good at getting after the passer: last season he notched four sacks, four quarterback hits, and 18 hurries on his 310 pass rushes, per PFF.
Just ask Dak Prescott about No. 93.
Last August, I wrote that Stringfellow would be one of the league's breakout receiving stars. But with Laquon Treadwell eating up 26 percent of all targets, String was left to scratch out an unspectacular 35 catches for 503 yards and five scores. Five of those grabs, however, came in his final game of the season (he missed the Sugar Bowl with an injury), when he torched State for two touchdowns and a career-high 84 yards. With String stepping in to replace Treadwell as Chad Kelly's No. 1 option, I expect more of those big games this season.
Specifically, Treadwell's departure should mean more looks in the endzone for Stringfellow. Treadwell ranked seventh in the country last season in red zone targets, and a lot of those goal-line fades that Swag was slinging towards Laquon will now be aimed at Damore'ea, whose combination of size, strength and jumping ability make him a cornerback's nightmare in those situations. The dude is 6'2 with the third highest vertical and broad jumps on the team, the fifth highest power clean on the team (behind four linemen) and, despite his size, enough explosiveness to rank second in the receivers room in the 10-yard sprint (Quincy Adeboyejo leads the whole team). That all adds up to plays like this:
A lot of folks didn't start paying attention to Gates until he replaced the troubled Denzel Nkemdiche as the starting outside backer in Week 12 against LSU, but the then-sophomore was already second on the team in tackles before he piled up 14 against the Tigers. He finished with the team lead in that category, averaging 7.6 stops per game and adding a pair of forced fumbles over the final seven contests. PFF graded him as the third best 4-3 linebacker in the SEC last season.
Though Gates has been taking his snaps at the Mike backer spot this offseason, the arrival of Oregon State transfer Rommel Mageo should slide Gates back outside, where his speed and experience could make him one of the most dangerous defensive playmakers in the league.
I'll start by saying this: I think Ole Miss fans have unrealistic expectations for Little, the No. 1 offensive tackle prospect in the 2016 cycle. Laremy Tunsil spoiled us by showing up as a plug-and-play left tackle, but folks need to realize how rare it is for a freshman—even one as talented as Tunsil or Little—to step into that role in the SEC. It doesn't help that the Rebs will face two of the nastiest defensive fronts in the country during their first three games.
Still, the potential is certainly there for Little to have an immediate and significant impact. His talent combined with the lack of options at OT will ensure he gets a shot to compete for a starting job. If he can survive the first few weeks—even if that means starting on the right side or just rotating in—he could be the piece that pushes the offense to the next level.
This is the least likely since Judd hasn't even established himself as the top back in Oxford, much less one of the top backs in the league. And even if he does win the starting job (which we think will happen), Judd will still likely give up significant carries to Jordan Wilkins and perhaps Eric Swinney.
But if there's someone on the roster capable of becoming a feature back this season, it's Judd. Though he had just 421 total yards in 2015, he was actually the most efficient back on the team—his 5.4 yards per carry bested starter Jaylon Walton (5.1) and Wilkins (5.3). Not only is Judd a physical, one-cut runner who can get those tough yards that Ole Miss struggled to pick up last season, he shows good vision and the patience to let blocks develop in front him.
And despite the departure of Laremy Tunsil, the blocking in front of Judd could be better this season. Sure, the two tackle spots are a problem, but the interior looks like it'll be stout—center Robert Conyers and guard Rod Taylor are back from injury, while promising young guards Javon Patterson and Jordan Sims are ready to step forward.