You have to feel for Ole Miss running back Eric Swinney. Three years ago, a stress fracture in fall camp ended his true freshman season before it began. Thirteen months later, he tore his ACL on his first carry of the first game.
And now, with Swinney competing to become the top ball carrier on the Rebels’ offense, he’s sidelined for three weeks season with a case of mono, of all things.
Swinney was listed behind JUCO transfer Scottie Phillips on the game-week depth chart, but it was a close race throughout fall camp and Swinney would have had an opportunity to climb back on top during early matchups against Texas Tech and Illinois State (it’s unclear whether he’ll be available for the third game against Bama). Those carries will now be split between Phillips and freshman Isaiah Woullard, both of whom surprised Ole Miss coaches by providing stiff competition to Swinney during camp.
Still, it’s a blow to the Rebels’ running back depth. The lingering effects of a torn ACL could keep junior D’Vaughn Pennamon out for the entire season, leaving Swinney as the only guy in the backfield with more than 25 career carries. As a change of pace back last season, Swinney averaged 4.8 yards per carry on 42 totes, most of which came in garbage time or against weak opponents.
That means a lot is riding on the untested legs of Phillips, who showed up in Oxford six months ago as the country’s second-ranked JUCO running back. The coaches have sung his praises since spring camp, but it’s hard to tell what you have in a guy whose only reps against DI competition has come in practice against Ole Miss’ porous run D.
Last season, Ole Miss ran the ball on standard downs just 45 percent of the time—the third lowest rate in all of DI football. That, in conjunction with the Rebels’ big-name receivers and explosive passing attack, fed a misconception that offensive coordinator Phil Longo doesn’t like running the ball.
In fact, Longo’s offenses during his three seasons at Sam Houston State ranked among the most efficient rushing attacks at the FCS level. Longo isn’t as concerned about his run-pass ratio as he is taking advantage of his team’s strengths, regardless of what those are.
While there’s no question that the strength of the 2018 Rebels lies at the wide receiver position, it’s also true that an Ole Miss offensive line that ranked 11th in the country in standard-down line yards in 2017 returns all five starters. Longo wants to run the ball. His offensive line is experienced and talented. The only question is whether there’s a back on the roster capable of making plays.
Which is why potentially losing Swinney for the first three games is concerning. If the inexperienced Phillips has trouble adjusting to DI speed and competition early on, there’s no real fallback option until Swinney recovers.
Then again, maybe Phillips is up to the challenge.