There are a number of certainties as Ole Miss opens fall practice on Monday, marking exactly four weeks until the Rebels hit to turf of the Citrus Bowl to face Florida State. The formalities of last year’s “quarterback competition” well behind him, Chad Kelly will start behind center, and Chad Kelly will be really damn good. His receivers will be one of the deepest and most talented groups in the conference, even with the loss of Laquon Treadwell and Cody Core. The D-line will be impossibly large, impossibly athletic and possibly even better than it was with Robert Nkemdiche.
But there are still plenty of unknowns on this team. Youth at offensive tackle and the defensive backfield, transfer players at key positions and lingering injuries cast long shadows of uncertainty on a team that hopes to compete for the toughest division in college football. Here are five questions we hope will be answered during the 29 preseason practice sessions available to the Ole Miss coaches.
Who will start at left tackle?
Jeremy Liggins was listed atop the pre-fall depth chart, but I just can’t see Hugh Freeze tasking Liggins, who’s never started at the position at any level, with protecting Chad Kelly’s blindside from FSU’s human battering ram, DeMarcus Walker. The most likely Week 1 starter is probably redshirt freshman Alex Givens, a 6’6, 297-pound former four-star who took most of the first-team reps in spring ball.
The biggest question, of course, is how ready superstar recruit Greg Little will be. The highest-rated offensive tackle prospect in the country will almost certainly fill his role as Laremy Tunsil’s successor at some point this season, but expecting him to do so immediately—especially against the defensive fronts Ole Miss faces in the early going—might be unrealistic. Fall camp will finally give the Rebel coaches an opportunity to work him out on the field and gauge how quickly he’ll be ready to play.
Can the transfer linebackers adjust in time?
“Thank God we’ve got [Rommel Mageo]. We had missed there,” Freeze said on ESPN a few weeks ago when discussing his middle linebacker situation. “You talk about question marks, man, I’m real anxious.”
Indeed, the late arrival of Mageo, an Oregon State graduate transfer, and JUCO Detric Bing-Dukes was a godsend for a position that the Rebs have failed to adequately recruit over the past few seasons. The assumption is that Mageo, a seasoned vet who led the Beavers in tackles last season, will be able to step immediately into the starting Mike job, allowing DeMarquis Gates to slide back to the outside backer role in which he starred last season.
But let’s not undersell the difficulty of learning an entirely new defensive system, particularly at a position like middle backer, which is tasked with directing his teammates.
“It’s huge for us,” Freeze said of the middle linebacker’s role on the Ole Miss defense. “You’ve got to line everybody up, and you’ve obviously got to stop physical run games.”
The Rebs open the season against one of college football’s best running backs in Dalvin Cook, and their ability to slow him down might come down to how prepared its new linebackers are.
Will the D-line be healthy for the opener?
The other big key to slowing down Cook will be setting the defensive edge, a task Dave Wommack hopes to assign to strong-side defensive end Fadol Brown. But Brown, who sat out all of spring camp, has taken an alarming long time to recover from a stress fracture in his foot—seven months after undergoing a procedure that kept him out of the Sugar Bowl, Brown is still wearing a walking boot. Freeze said during Media Days that they’d be trying out a new treatment in the hopes of jump starting Brown’s recovery, but if that doesn’t work, the Rebs could be stuck leaning on career backup John Youngblood in Week 1. Don’t get me wrong, Youngblood’s been spectacular as a rotational depth player during his career, but he’s not the guy you want serving as the defensive linchpin against a ground attack that finished 11th in the country in rushing S&P+ last season.
The good news on the injury front is that nose tackle Issac Gross, who missed all of last season with a neck injury, has been given the green light to make a full return to contact during fall camp. His ability to knife into the backfield could be key to disrupting Cook and forcing him to bounce runs outside... which again underscores the need for a edge containment from the D-ends.
How quickly can the young secondary grow up?
With the departures of Mike Hilton and Trae Elston, C.J. Hampton is the only guy on the team with starting experience at the deep safety spots, and even he is a major question mark after a rocky sophomore campaign. The Ole Miss secondary will rely heavily on young players this season: Zedrick Woods is currently listed alongside Hampton as the co-starter at free safety, freshman Myles Hartsfield is the early starter at rover (the Rebels’ term for strong safety) after impressing in spring camp as an early enrollee, and four-star recruits, and four-star freshmen Deontay Anderson and Jaylon Jones will probably factor heavily into the fall competition.
Who’s backing up Swag?
The departures of DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan likely ended any hopes of a redshirt year for star recruit Shea Patterson, the top quarterback prospect in the 2016 class. Patterson and Jason Pellerin are the only scholarship passers on the roster behind Kelly, and they’ll battle it out for the backup QB gig.
The coaches are probably hoping that more talented Patterson—whose physical tools should be a perfect fit for Freeze’s spread attack—will step forward in fall practice to claim the job. It helps that he was in spring camp as an early enrollee, where he got some first-team reps while Chad was nursing a sports hernia. I’d take a grain of salt with Patterson’s suggestion that he “knows the offense like the back of [his] hand”, but it does sound like he’s a quick learner.