Last season saw Jordan Wilkins become just the fifth Ole Miss running back ever to surpass 1,000 yards rushing in a season. Through the years, it often hasn’t been easy for Ole Miss to compete on the ground, with the school struggling to regularly recruit good offensive linemen and running backs in the same era. Too often, there’s a great line with mediocre backs or vice versa. Last season, however, the line played good football, and Wilkins played well enough to be drafted (he’s now being considered for major reps as an Indianapolis Colt).
Most of the Rebels offensive line returns this season, giving them an additional year of experience and working with O-line coach Jack Bicknell (who can correct the mistakes Matt Luke apparently coached into them).
So the question becomes, is there a running back on campus who can reach the 1,000 yard mark and begin establishing some precedent for a successful ground attack in Oxford?
Scottie Phillips is the presumed leader in the race to be the starter
The three-star junior college transfer has drawn high praise from coaches this offseason after transferring to Ole Miss in January. Phillips’ only other Power 5 offer came from Miami, who had to settle instead for five-star high school running back Lorenzo Lingard as well as the No. 7 high school running back nationally in Cam’Ron Davis.
“Another instinctive guy but [Phillips] is very light on his feet,” running back coach Nix recently told WDAM-7. “It doesn’t take him a lot of time to get going as well. He can get to his top speed right away. When he makes his cuts, he’s not slowing down. He’s making his cuts full speed. I think that’s the attributes he has that are really good.”
Phillips is supposedly shifty and has been busy making the Rebel defense miss since arriving on campus.
But that’s maybe the problem: Phillips has only been playing against the Ole Miss defense. Remember, this is a run defense that ranked 123rd in the country last season. There weren’t many running backs who didn’t make them miss.
Eric Swinney is pushing Phillips for reps
Junior running back Eric Swinney is in contention as well. Many of you remember that Swinney had two leg injuries that derailed the beginning of his tenure in Oxford. He broke his leg during his first August camp as a highly regarded freshman (with offers from Bama, Georgia, and pretty much everyone), knocking him out for the season. He then tore up his knee on his first carry as a redshirt freshman in 2016, costing him a second consecutive season due to injury.
Swinney returned last year to notch 41 carries for 195 yards (third on the team), giving him 4.8 yards per carry.
Swinney isn’t new, so he isn’t gaining as much attention as Phillips. I like the way he runs though, and it’s possible that another year of healing and gaining strength back has helped him. While he isn’t an asset as a receiver—which is a problem in Phil Longo’s offense—I do think Swinney has a chance to be the most useful back at moving the chains on the ground. I simply can’t count on a junior college running back at this stage of the game.
Past those two, it’s anyone’s guess
Freshmen Isaiah Woullard and Tylan Knight have been mentioned the most frequently in public interviews, but neither is expected to make much of an impact this year. D.K. Buford and Armani Linton are journeymen still looking for positions in their senior and junior years, respectively. It’s certainly possible that one of these four emerges as a playmaker, but this really looks like a two horse race.
“Scottie’s probably kind of stood out but Swinney’s come on,” Matt Luke told WBRC-6 last week. “Isaiah Woullard’s made some plays. Armani [Linton’]s coming on. From top to bottom, we’re deeper there. We got some guys that can go.
It’s likely that Phillips and Swinney are both capable of producing, at the very least, what is blocked for them. That may be enough, when balanced with the passing attack, to make the offense dangerous. This team will need to be able to gain tough yards a lot of times this season though, and there’s no way to know whether there’s anyone capable of doing that on the roster at the moment. Here’s hoping someone steps up and becomes that reliable runner this team so desperately needs.