The oddsmakers at Bovada are giving Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly the fourth best chance among quarterbacks to win the Heisman Trophy this season, behind Clemson’s Dashaun Watson, Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and tied with UCLA’s Josh Rosen. While some of those guys may have more talent or better 2015 numbers, Kelly has one big advantage over the rest, save for perhaps Watson: his receivers.
Hugh Freeze has recruited well across the board in Oxford, but he’s been particularly successful in procuring top wide receiver talent: even after the early departure of Laquon Treadwell, this year’s Rebel team is loaded with eight former four-star wideouts. In fact, when you average the 247Sports recruiting grades for each of the Heisman frontrunners’ top 10 receivers, Kelly’s group is second only to Barrett’s.
|Team||Avg. 247 Rating||Returning Production|
*Clemson's returning production numbers include Mike Williams' 2014 stats since he missed last season.
And while Ohio State has higher rated talent, its top returning wideout had all of five receptions in 2015. Ole Miss, on the other hand, returns Damore’ea Stringfellow, Quincy Adeboyejo and Markell Pack, all of whom tallied at least 40 grabs last season (plus tight end Evan Engram, who pitched in another 38 receptions). Watson’s group strikes the best balance of talent and production—he has two five stars and six four stars to throw to and not only returns four of his top five targets from 2015, but gets a healthy Mike Williams back.
Still, the SEC’s best quarterback has an embarrassment of receivers at his disposal this season. Let’s meet that group.
The projected 3-deep
|X receiver||Slot receiver||Tight end||Z receiver|
|Damore'ea Stringfellow||Van Jefferson||Evan Engram||Quincy Adeboyejo|
|Derrick Jones||Markell Pack||Octavious Cooley||Damarkus Lodge|
|A.J. Brown||Tre Nixon||Hunter Thurley||D.K. Metcalf|
So who replaces Treadwell?
Nobody, or at least not one single person. Treadwell was one of the most prolific receivers in SEC history—despite playing just two and a half seasons (factoring in the 2014 injury), Quon’s 202 career receptions rank seventh among the conference’s leaders, and he would have almost certainly passed Jordan Matthews' all-time record of 262 had he come back for his senior season. Over a quarter of the footballs that left Kelly's hand last season were aimed at Treadwell, and no one receiver in this year’s group can expect to play that prodigious of a role.
Which might be a good thing. As Chad was learning the offense during his first season, he leaned on Treadwell as a big-bodied, apex receiver to whom he could just chunk it up when pressure was closing in or he couldn’t make the right read. (Remember the miraculous Tip Six against Bama? That started as a prayer to Quon.) But now that he’s closer to mastering the offense, a more composed, patient Kelly should be more adept at finding the open receiver and spreading the ball around.
If there’s a favorite to take over as Kelly’s top target, though, it’s Damore’ea Stringfellow, who tallied 503 yards and five scores on 35 grabs last season. Treadwell’s departure should allow him to step that production up dramatically. String will be especially dangerous in the red zone, something I wrote about earlier this summer:
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:
Van Jefferson could be a breakout star
Two weeks ago, junior receiver Markell Pack went down with a hand injury. He returned to practice this week and sounds like he’ll be good to go for the opener, but his absence from practice likely cemented Jefferson, a redshirt freshman, as the starter in the slot.
Jefferson had already taken a lead over the vet during spring camp (Jefferson was on top of the depth chart that was released before the beginning of spring ball) thanks to his route running, a skill developed in part by his NFL dad, who’s currently the receivers coach for the Dolphins.
Listen to Freeze rave about Jefferson during a press conference earlier this month:
He’s the best route runner we have, as far as getting in and out of breaks, and his hands are very, very steady. He’s got adequate speed to stretch the field. In tight quarters, when he gets out of a break, his separation is as good as any I’ve coached here, and that’s his gift. You can tell he’s been coached — of course his dad is a wide receiver coach in the NFL... He understands the spacing, understands when to tone the route down, when to speed through a zone. He kind of just has a feel for it.
With defenses keying on the hulking Stringfellow and speedy Adeboyejo outside, Jefferson could run wild in the slot. Man him up with a safety or linebacker and his crisp route running will leave them in the dust; play zone and the coach’s son should be able to find the gaps. It wouldn't be shocking if Jefferson ended up leading the Rebels in receptions in 2016.
Look out for the freshmen
Freeze re-upped with a trio of four-star croots in 2016, adding A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and Tre Nixon. Nixon is the most likely redshirt of that group, though he has a chance to find playing time this season as a punt returner (Lord knows the Rebels need one).
Brown is the most likely to make an immediate splash. The Starkville native, who trolled the entirety of Oktibbeha County when he picked Ole Miss over State on Signing Day, is a 6’1, 225-pound future superstar with a crazy catch radius and stickum hands. There’s a lot of veteran experience in front of him, but his raw talent could allow him to carve out a significant role in 2016.
If the Rebs can get any of the newcomers contributing in a meaningful way this season, the passing game goes from really damn good to "stop playing NCAA Football on freshman mode, bro."
And don’t forget about one of the SEC’s best receiving tight ends
Oh yea, Evan Engram returns after getting unsatisfactory feedback from the NFL Draft Advisory Board. He’s bulked up in an effort to become a better run blocker, but I’d also expect his receiving numbers to take a big step forward from the underwhelming 464 yards and pair of touchdowns he tallied last season. He, like everyone else, will benefit from the available targets freed up by Treadwell’s departure.
The other name to know is four-star freshman Octavious Cooley, a four-star newcomer ranked as the sixth best tight end prospect of the 2016 class. Listed at 246 pounds, he has the size to eventually become a more complete player than the diminutive Engram.
"No doubt he has the physique and athletic ability to be arguably the best we’ve had since I’ve been around," Freeze told The Clarion-Ledger during spring camp. "He’s not Evan in running routes, but he’s got the potential to do more, to be more suited to do everything."
Worst case, best case
At worst, Damore’ea Stringfellow struggles to consistently produce as a No. 1 receiver and the crew of younger guys take longer than expected to develop. Even still, Chad Kelly will put up a boatload of yards.
At best, String emerges as a bona fide star who draws attention away from the likes of Quincy Adeboyejo and Van Jefferson. A.J. Brown becomes an immediate contributor and pairs with String to be an unstoppable red zone duo, while Evan Engram finally takes the big step forward we’ve been waiting on since his All-SEC freshman campaign.