In the shuffle of all the storylines and concerns heading into Ole Miss spring practice, the fundamental issue of establishing a consistent running game may have been put on the back burner—it’s been that kind of offseason. The enigma of finding balance in an otherwise potent offense has plagued Hugh Freeze’s Rebel teams for years.
Many believed landing five-star recruit Cam Akers would be the antidote, but of course, that ship has sailed. Nevertheless, the lack of a deep, blue chip-studded backfield and offensive line is no longer a valid excuse. This roster is fully capable of finding success on the ground as-is, and it all starts with senior Jordan Wilkins.
Of the returning running backs expected to contribute on the ground, Wilkins makes up nearly half of the group’s 254 combined career rushing attempts. D’Vaughn Pennamon and Eric Swinney were equally, if not more highly, touted recruits coming out of high school, but until they prove they can take on significant carries, Wilkins will be the guy.
The news of him being ruled academically ineligible last season weighed heavier on the offense as they ran out of dependable options in the backfield. Two weeks before the opener against Florida State, Ole Miss announced that Wilkins did not meet the NCAA’s requirement for credit hours towards his degree, a mistake for which the athletic department took full responsibility. As frustrating a situation as it probably was for him, he handled it with maturity and understanding.
"Football seems more important to him now after what he went through last season," Rebel running back coach Derrick Nix told the Ole Miss Spirit last week. "One, it's his senior year. Two, he missed it more than he thought he would last year, which made him realize how important football is to him.”
Given he’ll be shifting from a second or third option to something of a featured back, Wilkins’ pledge to come back better than ever will have to come to fruition.
Since arriving in Oxford, offensive coordinator Phil Longo has iterated time and again that he intends to emphasize a power running game.
“When we run, I want it to be very physical and downhill. That is not rhetoric,” Longo told the Ole Miss Spirit in December. “That is how we are going to attack the run game—downhill and aggressive. We will run the ball as a necessity to win football games.”
That may indeed sound like rhetoric coming from an Air Raid disciple, but Longo’s proven his commitment to the ground game. His Sam Houston State offense spent most of last year throwing the ball, but that was necessitated by the presence of a star quarterback. In the two previous seasons combined, Longo’s offense ran the ball 59 percent of the time (the same rate as Alabama in 2016) while ranking top 12 among FCS schools in rushing attempts, rushing yards per game and yards per carry
One could make the case that Wilkins is the prototypical runner for Longo’s system. His bruising frame, combined with big play potential at the second level and beyond, may be just what the new play-caller is looking for.
On runs that made it to the second level in 2015, Wilkins led all Ole Miss running backs with 11.8 yards per carry, but actually getting the opportunity for a big run was an issue at times. While Akeem Judd gained five or more yards 46 percent of the time, Wilkins’ mark here was just under 42 percent. That’s where’s Longo’s scheme comes in.
While Freeze’s offense has utilized mostly zone blocking in the past, Longo’s will feature more of a mix, working in some traditional power blocking along the line. Part of this is to avoid linemen being flagged for blocking downfield, but more importantly, it allows for an extra blocker, typically a guard, at the point of attack.
From the same Ole Miss Spirit article:
“As for offensive line play, we will have no plays where they will have to pull up after three yards. Everything we do is based on a true run concept when we run RPO. The offensive line, in this system, only believes we are running power when we run power and we want them to block it that way. Otherwise, it takes away from your aggressiveness up front and we don't want to do that.”
Over the past two seasons, the Rebels ranked 101st and 83rd at allowing runs to be stuffed at the line of scrimmage. Hopefully, a scheme in which linemen know before the snap whether they’re blocking for a run will help out. Of course, achieving offensive balance after years of lacking it isn’t as simple as installing a new system.
External factors always come into play, but even those may favor Ole Miss in a way this year. In addition to having decent options to hand the ball off to, this may be the deepest offensive line in the Freeze era, thanks in part to the 2016 recruiting class. Even so, whether or not it’s fair to expect a dramatic bounce-back from Wilkins, it just might be an imperative for any kind of improvement on the ground in 2017.