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Ole Miss football 2021 preview: Rebels have endless options at running back

Kevin Smith has quite the five-headed monster in the backfield this season.

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Mississippi vs Indiana Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a reputation as a passing program (if that’s even a possible thing to identify a school), the Rebels have had a string of strong running backs in recent seasons. Akeem Judd begat Jordan Wilkins who begat Scottie Phillips. All three of those primary backs were quite good, with two still appearing on NFL rosters. Yes, the top end talent in recent years at the position has been fine. The problem, of course, has been the depth at the position.

Behind Judd was Eugene Brazley with 261 yards. In Wilkins’ final season, the team’s second leading rusher was D’Vaughn Pennamon with 217 yards. Phillips had Isaiah Woullard with a somewhat respectable 428 (more on him later). Past that primary back, there just wasn’t too much going on, due to both lack of opportunity (second stringers only accounted for 29% of carries during that time) or production (24% of rushing yardage). It’s clear that those teams took a relatively outdated approach to the position that just asked those players to tote the rock over and over again.

But under first-year head coach Lane Kiffin (along with innovative offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby), that wasn’t the case. Primary running back Jerrion Ealy had 147 carries for a respectable 745 yards. Not far behind him was Snoop Conner with 93 and 421. While that’s not an even distribution, it’s closer.

On top of that, true freshman Henry Parrish had 56 carries (primarily later in the season) for 263 yards. It’s no wonder that the Rebels did so well on the ground, leading the SEC in rushing. Matt Corral had a lot to do with that, but that’s a story for another day.

The running back room is so strong at the moment, that Lane Kiffin has openly talked about how Ealy and Parrish will be running plays in the slot on top of their duties carrying the ball. This is the stuff NCAA Football 14 dreams are made of.

Let’s talk about Jerrion Ealy.

While the depth is a major asset to the team, it’s clear that Ealy is the back best suited for the most carries. Ealy is blazingly fast and has an excellent ability to see holes opening up ahead of time. On top of that, he can do this in the return game…

It’s no wonder Ealy earned preseason first team all-SEC honors for his work in the return game.

Ealy’s real asset though is his ability to both pick up tough, short yardage and break home run balls. While the staff has an embarrassment of riches at the position, they don’t HAVE to pull him on third and 2. At the same time, he can break huge gains any time he touches the ball.

Reports out of training camp suggest he’ll be used a good bit in the slot this season, putting another playmaker in space. This is all possible because….

Snoop Conner is also super versatile.

Whenever you have a smaller, super fast running back starter and a large, strong runner behind him, there’s a tendency to put them in buckets. “Jerrion is lightning to Snoop’s thunder. Snoop may not be too fast, but he can pick up tough yardage.” That’s not at all actually the case here though.

Snoop Conner’ 4.5 yards per carry last season (and 6.3 the year before) are not the types of efficiency you see from someone who is only a short yardage back. The Rebels still are wise to put him in often when the defense will be heavier, but he regularly breaks significant runs in situations like that, gaining chunk yardage when the offense isn’t even asking for it.

Henry Parrish, Jr. is probably the future workhorse.

Parrish was a highly recruited running back as a top 250 prospect out of Miami. He was eased into action slowly last season for whatever reason (only playing in five of ten games), but when he came on we saw why the coaches pursued him so heavily.

He’s a one-cut runner with magnificent vision and patience. With both Snoop Conner and Jerrion Ealy ahead of him, this season may still see him with a smaller number of carries, but as the coaching staff toys with Ealy in the slot (and apparently Parrish as well), it’s likely his opportunities will increase.

And after the first three, there’s still more depth.

To think that three years ago, his freshman season, Isaiah Woullard was the second best back on campus, and is now fourth or fifth on the depth chart, should tell you things have turned around at the position. Woullard didn’t have a carry last season, so perhaps the staff doesn’t see a use for him, but an injury or two could make him a useful tool.

Also, this season the team will, luckily, play against some lesser opponents. Having a proven back who can take the ball over in the fourth quarter is a really beneficial piece of the puzzle.

Kentrel Bullock only had two carries last season (both of which happened in the bowl game with Jerrion Ealy out), but he’s expected to be a player with exceptional straight-line speed and big play ability. He’s not as shifty as Parrish, but it’s easy to see a future with Bullock getting significant carries in this offense, even if not this season.