About three weeks ago, Ole Miss release an updated depth chart in the lead-up to SEC Media days. Most of the names on that table are written in ink: Jordan Ta’amu will start at quarterback, the trio of A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge will stay atop the wide receiver group and the entire offensive line is set.
But some positions, particularly on the defensive side, are still up for grabs. Those will be settled over the next couple weeks during fall camp, which formally opened on Friday morning. This’ll be the last opportunity for players to make their bid for the starting lineup in the Sept. 1 opener against Texas Tech.
Let’s run through three of the most tightly-contested positions, beginning in the offensive backfield.
The gaping hole left by Jordan Wilkins’ departure to the NFL will be that much harder to fill considering his primary backup, D’Vaughn Pennamon, may not see the field at all this season. Speaking during SEC Media Days, Luke hinted that Pennamon still had a long journey back from a dislocated knee suffered against A&M last November.
The remaining running backs on the roster have a grand total of 29 SEC carries between them, 27 of which have gone to junior Eric Swinney. Swinney has flashed tantalizing athletic potential for years but has twice been sidelined with season-ending injuries. His first healthy campaign last year saw him stuck behind Wilkins and Pennamon; so this, his junior season, will be his best opportunity to date to make an impact.
To do so, he’ll have to beat out JUCO transfer Scottie Phillips, who enters camp listed at the top of the depth chart, and true freshman Isaiah Woullard. Luke said the “surprise” emergence of that pair during spring camp has created a three-way battle heading into the fall.
A significant note: none of those three guys stands taller than 5’9 or weigh over 215 pounds. Offensive coordinator Phil Longo likes to use speed to stretch the edges and gash overextended defenses up the middle, but there’ll be times when he needs to bludgeon his to short yardage success. That’s where the Rebels will most acutely feel Pennamon’s absence and where 230-pound senior D.K. Buford will have his best chance to make an impact.
When Quaadir Shepard went down with an injury last season, Victor Evans had his chance to prove himself. The former three-star had been used as a reserve up that point but flashed his potential when plugged into the starting lineup for three games last season. Heading into fall camp, the 6’3, 240-pound end is Ole Miss’ best shot at replacing Marquis Haynes.
Haynes, who left Ole Miss as the school’s all-time sack leader, was a fourth-round pick to the Carolina Panthers in April. Between he and defensive tackle Breeland Speaks (second round to the Kansas City Chiefs), a full half of the Rebels’ 2017 sack production is gone.
Evans enters camp at the top of the depth chart, with sophomore Ryder Anderson and Shepard penciled into a tie on the other side. Anderson’s an intriguing physical prospect: at 6’6, 244 pounds, he has the speed and range to rush the passer and the bulk to hold his own against the run. Shepard, a former Syracuse transfer, entered last season as a starter before going down with a knee injury. He was held out of spring camp with a foot ailment but should be back in the mix for the fall.
You’ll never guess it, but Ole Miss has trouble at linebacker again. A glaring lack of talent and depth at the second level was the biggest reason the Rebels defense ranked 88th in rushing success rate and dead last in the country in rushes of 20 yards or more last year (that’s bad, folks). And that was with DeMarquis Gates, the most competent linebacker of the last three years.
Gates is gone, leaving new linebacker coach Jon Sumrall with the unenviable task of improving the team’s worst position group. The upshot? He has a crew of talented youngsters who could be poised to step forward. Redshirt freshmen Josh Clarke and Zikerrion Baker both cracked the two-deep in the pre-fall depth chart (Clarke as the starter on the outside) and sophomore Mohamed Sonogo, a former four-star who played in 11 games last year, could climb his way up.
The primary vet to watch is Detric Bing-Dukes, a senior who’s been in and out of the starting lineup over the past couple of seasons. His size and strength give him the potential to be a difference maker in the interior, but his lack of mobility makes him a liability in a 4-2-5 scheme that asks its linebackers to cover a lot of horizontal ground. Also in the mix are Donta Evans, Willie Hibbler and Vernon Dasher.
The coaching staff’s ability—or inability—to piece together a functioning linebacking corps may be the most significant outcome of fall camp.