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Ole Miss’ running backs have a lot to prove in 2018

Can the returning backfield pick up where Jordan Wilkins left off?

NCAA Football: UL Lafayette at Mississippi Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Phil Longo’s first season as Ole Miss’ offensive coordinator served as affirmation that there’d be no departure from the high-flying unit Oxford had grown accustomed to in the Freeze era. In a year dominated by bigger headlines both on and (mostly) off the field, one of the more overlooked areas of improvement was a revamped ground game—the Rebels cracked the top 35 in both rushing efficiency and explosiveness in 2017.

Much of Ole Miss’ 2017 ground success could be attributed to a veteran offensive line and the hiring of former NFL coach Jack Bicknell. It may have also had something to do with the resurgence of senior Jordan Wilkins, who became the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Dexter McCluster in 2009.

Wilkins is now an Indianapolis Colt, and the Rebels will have to pick up the pieces with a group of capable, but unproven group of backs. Recreating the magic from last year is far from a guarantee.

The 2018 running back room doesn’t bring much experience to the table.

Wilkins was a proven commodity by the time he took over as the starter last season, having carried the ball 124 carries as a capable reserve runner in 2014 and 2015. We can’t say quite the same for the two guys at the top of this season’s depth chart.

D’Vaughn Pennamon, who served primarily as a short-yardage back last season, and Eric Swinney, who missed all of 2016 with an injury, have combined for just 115 carries over the past two years. JUCO transfer Scott Phillips was a legit workhorse at Jones County with 222 rushes, but his gaudy totals at that level may not transfer to SEC play.

The argument could be made that if Pennamon and Swinney had revealed a high ceiling at any point in their young careers, that lack of quality snaps becomes less relevant. That’s not the case here, though.

The new core hasn’t done much with the few opportunities they’ve been given.

Outside of Swinney’s 55-yard touchdown run in garbage time against Vanderbilt last season, neither he nor Pennamon have broken off a carry of more than 20 yards while wearing a Rebels jersey. Wilkins, on the other hand, gained more than 20 yards on six separate occasions over the course of his freshman and sophomore campaigns.

For a closer look, we can see how each of these players performed in the years prior to taking on a greater role.

Ole Miss running back comparison

Name Carries Yards Yards per Carry Opportunity Rate Stuff Rate Highlight Yards per Opportunity
Name Carries Yards Yards per Carry Opportunity Rate Stuff Rate Highlight Yards per Opportunity
Wilkins (2014-15) 115 689 5.99 44.35% 24.35% 6.14
Pennamon (2016-17) 73 275 3.77 30.14% 17.81% 2.48
Swinney (2016-17) 42 201 4.79 40.48% 21.43% 4.56
National Average 5.17 38% 20.00% 5.24
Swinney’s numbers include his single carry in 2016 for six yards.

Wilkins did much more than the other two with the early carries he was given. Even when looking at how the backs performed independent of the offensive line, Wilkins stood out with 6.1 highlight yards per opportunity. Making things even more worrisome is that Pennamon, the most experienced of the returning backs, put up the worst stat line by a long shot, and is coming back from a leg injury suffered against Texas A&M.

It’s worth mentioning that Swinney could have still been adjusting after dealing with multiple injuries, and he does show a bit more promise in terms of actually getting to the second level and making something happen. Nevertheless, this may not be such a smooth transition.

The good news is that the running backs will have plenty of help.

Fortunately for everyone in the backfield, the same offensive line that turned heads last season will be back with even more quality starts under their belt, having lost only two rotation pieces. The backs should have plenty of running lanes and big-play opportunities.

On top of that, this is the offense that ran the ball just 45 percent of the time on standard downs in 2017 (128th in FBS). Provided Longo doesn’t deviate a ton from what worked last season, defenses aren’t going to sell out to stop Ole Miss from running the ball. In other words, there’s going to be a lot of of space to work with under a pass-happy identity.

A player’s past performance will only tell you so much about how they’ll do later on, and context is everything. If the top two backs’ recruiting profiles tell you anything (both were four-stars), it’s that they’re certainly capable of putting up numbers. Now it’s time to actually produce.