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Can Armani Linton provide legitimate depth at running back in 2018?

The former defensive back is going to the other side of the football. Can he actually help?

Getty Images-University of Mississippi

Despite it being post-National Signing Day and Junior Days and camps not cranking up just yet, Ole Miss football is back in the headlines again. Ole Miss Spirit’s David Johnson reported Wednesday evening that safety Armani Linton will now be moving to Derrick Nix’s room to provide depth at the running back position.

The Walnut, Miss. native has been in the secondary since his arrival to Oxford in 2015 but will now start his junior year at running back. In his first year two years on the field, he’s only collected 11 tackles in 19 career games. And Ole Miss has struggled at safety and needed some impact guys so maybe this move will also be good for Armani.

But, I think the real reason for the move is obvious. The Rebs missed out on three-star running back Charles Strong in this year’s cycle and will honestly only have 2018 signees Scottie Phillips and Isaiah Woullard as 100% healthy backs going into spring practice. Junior Eric Swinney is still not himself after tearing his ACL in the season opener in 2016 and junior D’Vaughn Pennamon dislocated his knee last season against Texas A&M so he will be on the road to recovery as well.

So with the addition of Linton, the Rebs will seemingly only have Phillips, Woullard, and Linton in the running back room ready to go and Swinney will be right behind them. You can also throw in 2018 signee Tylan Knight who might find himself at running back in certian packages due to his combination of speed and athleticism.

But will Armani Linton actually contribute in 2018?

He is no stranger to the position.

Linton signed with Ole Miss as a four-star safety who was All-Everything at Walnut Attendance Center. The No. 14 ranked safety in the country did play running back there, rushing for 1,532 yards, 20 touchdowns and 15 two-point conversions as a senior in 2014.

He’s an explosive athlete (granted it was at the Mississippi 2A level) when he’s given the football and/or catches it out of the backfield. Phil Longo’s offense is all about finding and exposing defenses with space. And Linton can do that with his size and speed combination (6’2, 218-pounds, 4.56 speed).

Now, playing running back at the Power 5 level is much different than at Walnut, but he has been in the position before and would have a rough draft to work with if you will for Derrick Nix.

The aforementioned injuries make the position rather thin.

Signees Phillips, Woullard, and Knight are unproven and have yet to take a snap for Ole Miss. Although all three are new to the program, one is expected to start: Phillips. The Jones County JUCO product is expected to challenge for the starting spot a year removed from the Mississippi junior college ranks where he ran for 1,112 yards on 222 carries while scoring 14 touchdowns.

Woullard, a 2017 grayshirt signee, is now a part of the team and will look to either snag the starting spot or provide depth behind Phillips. The Presbyterian Christian product is the all-time leading rusher in high school football history in the Magnolia State. Woullard totaled 8,334 yards and 93 rushing touchdowns during his four-year career at PCS. The 5’9, 195-pounder has to be itching to get going after watching from the stands last year.

The third name mentioned above is the reigning 6A Player of the Year in Mississippi. Knight is a Mike Hilton clone on defense (117 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, five sacks, two interceptions) but he was also a playmaker on offense as well. He totaled 1,047 all-purpose yards and 14 touchdowns for 16-0 state champion Pirates and could be used in the backfield as a scat back, depending on down and distance situations, but certainly not an every down back.

After these three, that’s pretty much it. Now, I realize Swinney is also going to be in the backfield, but I am of the opinion that he has yet to return to his true, old self after the injury against Florida State. Maybe he will shock us all and be what Ole Miss signed him to be, which would be great.

Linton is a nice combination of the two backs Nix missed on this cycle.

We already mentioned Strong, who signed with the Aggies, but Linton also reminds me a little of Nebraska signee Maurice Washington. Linton tips the scales at around 220-pounds which is the same as Strong. And one would venture to think that Linton has better foot speed, to boot.

Then, when you look at Washington, he appears to be a spread offense’s best friend. The 2018 Under Armour All-American Game MVP is a super athletic back who is an absolute terror in space who possesses the elusiveness Longo wanted to be a mismatch nightmare for linebackers and nickel backs. Linton could potentially fill that void with his 4.56 speed and large frame to shield off backers and defensive backs when running routes from the slot.

This sort of seems like somewhat of a desperate move from Ole Miss and Matt Luke. One would think that Linton could start at safety and should be used there since the Rebels are inexperienced and lacking playmakers there, too. But, Longo and offensive line coach Jack Bicknell put a big emphasis on the power running game in 2017 and it paid off by producing a 1,000 yard rusher in 12 games. And on paper, Linton is virtually the exact same, height and weight-wise.

Now, there may not be another 1,000 yard rusher on this year’s team, but collectively maybe they can make it happen now that Linton is in the room.