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Spring Practice: What we know, kinda know, and don’t know

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The intro to Year 3 of Lane Kiffin is underway, and we’re checking the inventory.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Mississippi at Baylor Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

When we last watched Ole Miss football, we were all having not a real great time in New Orleans. After Matt Corral left the Sugar Bowl in the first quarter with an injury, it became a struggle against inevitability and a less than pleasant experience to start 2022.

Since that night, Lane Kiffin and staff bought vacation property in the transfer portal and began restocking Ole Miss’ roster. Coming in to spring practice, Ole Miss added 12 likely immediate contributors through the portal, most notably quarterback Jaxson Dart, running back Zach Evans, tight end Michael Trigg, and a handful of defensive players.

With these additions*, the program’s momentum maintains a steady pace, and it seems possible there won’t be significant regression from the first 10-win regular season in school history. Obviously, this is Ole Miss sports and the darkest timeline always remains in play, but there are legitimate, non-red-and-blue-glasses reasons to believe Ole Miss will avoid a December in Memphis, Shreveport, or Birmingham.

*AHEM, I forget who was right about this. Was it someone I know? Who’s to say.

What We Know

Transfers Ahoy

We hit the high notes earlier, but let’s name all 12 transfers on the official Ole Miss roster:

  • Michael Trigg - TE (USC)
  • Isheem Young - S (Iowa State
  • Jaxson Dart - QB (USC)
  • Zach Evans - RB (TCU)
  • Troy Brown - LB (Central Michigan)
  • Jordan Watkins - WR (Louisville)
  • Ladarius Tennison - S (Auburn)
  • Jared Ivey - DE (Georgia Tech)
  • Khari Coleman - LB (TCU)
  • Ulysses Bentley IV - RB (SMU)
  • Mason Brooks - OL (Western Kentucky)
  • JJ Pegues - DL (Auburn)

Note: Dayton Wade (WR; Western Kentucky) and Danny Lockhart II (LB; USC) also transferred in but are walk-ons. Entirely possible they contribute in reserve roles or on special teams.

Of that group, Trigg, Dart, Evans, Brown, and Brooks are strong leans to either start or be in the mix to start at their respective positions. Everyone else could find themselves in a starting role at some point, but they all will contribute right away.

Replacing proven college football talent with proven college football talent is a lot more enjoyable than “hopefully Player X can be ready to contribute.”

Quarterbacks step in the squared circle

Drawing the most attention this spring is the quarterback competition between 2021 backup Luke Altmyer and the aforementioned Jaxson Dart. We last saw Altmyer trying to not be mauled by the Baylor defensive line (spoiler: he lived!) in a losing but gutsy effort for someone parachuting into a firestorm.

Last season, Dart played in six games for USC, the last of which was a meaningless make-up game with Cal (neither team could make a bowl game) where he suffered a concussion and left the game. Granted, USC was a chaotic mess last year, but when healthy, Dart was the guy for the Trojans.

As far as comparing the two, Altmyer will be more familiar with Kiffin’s offense and the abilities of those around him (minus the transfers), while Dart has much more live game experience. Physically, Dart has the edge in size and arm strength, but those advantages can be negated if one cannot pull the necessary levers of the offense.

We can look for a starter to not be named after spring practice due to not wanting to lose someone to the portal and coach-speak about keeping the competition going.

Even though it violates the principles this “what we know” section, I envision a scenario like 2015. Hugh Freeze wouldn’t name a starter, but it was clear that SWAG Kelly was the choice over Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade. In the 2022 version of this, I would expect Dart to be the obvious choice that isn’t named starter until August.

What We Kinda Know

An offensive line shuffle

As mentioned above, things in the Sugar Bowl didn’t go well for the offensive line. I won’t look up the official number, but Baylor piled up something like 47 sacks in four quarters. When you check those numbers in the analytics manual, it gives you a percentage of BAD, MY DUDE, VERY BAD.

To hopefully fix the issues that led to such a disaster, Ole Miss brought in Mason Brooks to give them the option to move players around. In an ideal scenario, the following would happen:

  • Brooks starts at right tackle
  • Jeremy James moves to left tackle (right tackle in 2021)
  • Nick Broeker goes inside to left guard (left tackle in 2021)
  • Caleb Warren starts at center (various positions in 2021)
  • Eli Acker stays at right guard where he finished 2021

Assuming that scenario plays out (it might not!), questions remain about depth. In a perfect world, they have 10 guys who can play. In a not bad world, they have 8 guys who can play. In a doomsday scenario, they have 5 or 6.

You can look at the roster and see the names of the candidates who could provide depth, but likely that depth has to come from guys who have experience, which include:

  • Reece McIntyre
  • Hamilton Hall
  • Cedric Melton
  • Jordan Rhodes

After that, you’re looking at a host of redshirt freshmen and sophomores. Maybe a few of those guys will be ready, but I would prefer a season where we’re not forced to find out if they’re ready.

Running backs wearing name tags

With last year’s top three rushers off to the NFL and The U, the running back depth chart is flooded with guys who weren’t at Ole Miss last year. All signs point to Zach Evans as the starter, but after that things become more of a guessing game.

What we do know is that Kentrel Bullock, Ulysses Bentley IV, and Quinshon Judkins will likely have opportunities to eat up the remaining carries. My guess is that Bullock and Bentley will see the most of those and if Judkins, a true freshman, doesn’t get totally lost in pass protection rules and regulations, he could get decent a taste as well.

Last season, Ole Miss and Arkansas led the SEC with 588 rushing attempts, so they’re going to need multiple contributors if that pace continues.

Plugging the defensive holes

Of Ole Miss’ top 12 tacklers on defense last season, five remain. Those seven players who moved on accounted for 40 percent of Ole Miss’ tackles in 2021 and 57.7 percent of the Rebels’ sacks. Losing that much production is what one might call NOT IDEAL, BOB.

We know the names of players who will be given the opportunity to make up for that production loss, but we don’t know who will be the leading contributors. Of course, we also don’t know if they can make up enough ground that there isn’t a substantial regression from a defense that was playing at a high level at the end of 2021.

On the edge, the obvious names who could fill-in for Sam Williams are Cedric Johnson, Demon Clowney, Jared Ivey, and Khari Coleman. Obviously, they’ll need more than that to contribute, which means guys who were there in 2021 need to make a leap to reliable contributor.

I would pivot to linebackers right now, but that situation has been hit with a TV-MA rating, and we’ll have to place a hold on that for now. Ignoring problems is always the healthiest approach!

The good news is that the back end of the defense is on solid ground. Although starters Jake Springer and Deane Leonard are gone (as are reserves Tylan Knight and Jaylon Jones), there’s plenty of experience returning. Additionally, two potential starters in Young and Tennison arrived via transfer, and there are a few options among the younger players who redshirted or saw limited action last year.

What we don’t know is who eventually starts or how the coaches will rotate players in the secondary. But unlike the past, they’re not relying on a majority of guys who haven’t seen the field before to figure it out.

Although the defense as a while has to make up for lost production, it at least appears they may do so without multiple guys having to play 60-80 snaps a game (or every snap) because there are no other options. No matter what the situation is in life, it’s always good to have options.

What We Don’t Know

Mingo and then what

Before a foot injury derailed his 2021 season, Jonathan Mingo was off to a pretty good start. In his first three games (granted, it was Louisville, Austin Peay, and Tulane), he caught 15 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns.

Once he returned against Vanderbilt in the 11th game of the season, he was ineffective through the bowl game. Hopefully, it was a combination of rust, lack of practice time and conditioning, and the offense itself fading down the stretch, but it’s still alarming.

So that’s your introduction to Ole Miss’ number one receiver coming in to 2022! Good stuff.

After Mingo, we have a whole lot of We Don’t Know. Transfers Jordan Watkins and Jalen Knox seem likely to be the leading candidates to assist Mingo in making up the wide receiver production of the departed Dontario Drummond and Braylon Sanders. If Dannis Jackson becomes more consistent, maybe he gets a spot in the rotation as well.

Ole Miss desperately needs to get something out of JJ Henry, Bralon Brown, and Brandon Buckhaulter. Whether it’s all three of them or only one of them, the receiver rotation has to have more depth and guys who can contribute.

Of course, all of this can receive a huge boost if transfer tight end Michael Trigg performs a tribute season to Kenny Yeboah or offers even more.

Coordinating

Ole Miss marches into 2022 with new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis Jr. and new defensive coordinator Chris Partridge, with Weis as the only one who has game experience in calling plays. As you could deduce from the offensive coordinator search, Kiffin is very much the boss of the offense and not giving up control, so things should continue in the same general direction on that side of the ball in 2021.

Partridge has never been THE guy before at any college stop, which at least registers a blip on the concern meter. Being THE guy is very much not the same as being the guy who assists THE guy.

However, Partridge was a part of the defensive system overhaul Ole Miss made prior to 2021. He had to teach* it and gameplan it, so his elevation to defensive coordinator is not the same as bringing in a first-time guy who wants to install his own system.

*If you have spare time and searching abilities on the internet dot com, you can find some informative clips of coaching clinic videos he’s done where he talks about the defense.

There is chatter among the chatterers that he’s going to introduce some options with four-man fronts and be more aggressive than former defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin was. Although, it should be noted that Ole Miss in 2021 finished tied for 23rd in team sacks and 30th in sack percentage.

Will Partridge transition well into his new role and maintain or improve a group that made huge strides last season? We don’t know!

Fine, let’s talk linebackers

Hoooooooooo boy.

Transfer Troy Brown is assumed to be a starter but nothing is official because it is April. Of the following names, ALL OF THEM have to contribute:

  • Austin Keys
  • Ashanti Cistrunk
  • Reginald Hughes

I suppose we could see a defensive back or lighter defensive end moved to linebacker if things become bleak, but it would be super cool if we didn’t have to break any glass in case of an emergency.

And who knows, maybe it all turns out fine, but having limited options with little experience is just a smidge scary.