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Offseason Primer: Ole Miss Looks to Retain a Core of Super Seniors.

The Rebs have a bevy of seniors with a year of COVID eligibility left, if they choose. Recruiting them to stay will be a key to success in 2024.

Texas A&M v Ole Miss Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

With the close of the regular season, things quickly move into hyperdrive on the recruiting front. Over the past few years, the early signing period has become the preferred time to sign for nearly all elite high school prospects; at the same time, the zany, NIL-fueled transfer portal season goes into full swing in December. And in a short-term anomaly, seniors on college football rosters across the country are weighing whether or not to take advantage of an extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA because of the 2020 COVID-19 season.

The Rebels have so far accumulated the best high school class of Lane Kiffin’s 4-year tenure at Ole Miss, so locking down those commitments and adding a few more key players will be a point of emphasis. But Lane will look to rekindle some of his Portal King magic from the past two offseasons, and also has a job ahead of him recruiting several key contributors to stay one last season in Oxford.

Today, we’ll take a look at the guys weighing their COVID year options. It’s difficult to predict where any particular player in this group is leaning, but with the college football playoff expanding to 12 teams next year, and the Rebs looking to return a solid core of veterans, Kiffin has the chance to convince some guys to stick around who normally might leave.

I’ve sketched out a rough draft of the Ole Miss depth chart with everyone removed who has either exhausted their eligibility or already left the team.

A couple of notes:

  • Zakhari Franklin is still listed, because while he kinda/sorta left the team, he appears to have done so specifically to retain a year of eligibility; if he’d appeared in one more game, he would not have been eligible to return. He may very well transfer as a graduate, or could even try his luck in NFL free agency, but I don’t think anyone really knows what he’s considering at this point.
  • DeShawn Gaddie is NOT marked on the Ole Miss roster as having an extra COVID year available, but recently posted a Tweet saying “decision.” Now, he could have been trying to decide whether to go to Cook Out or Cane’s for dinner, but also, maybe his eligibility situation isn’t as cut and dried as it looks?
  • Jayvontay Conner became the first scholarship player for Ole Miss to jump in the portal (not counting Isheem Young, who left the team a few weeks ago). A bit of a surprise, so we’ll see if the coaches make much of an effort to keep him around. He showed some athleticism as a pass catcher in practices, but only caught one pass in garbage time this year, with Caden Prieskorn accounting for the vast majority of the snaps at the tight end position.
  • I’m not including DeSanto Rollins on this list. While he still appears to be on the official roster, filing a frivolous suit against his head coach and school doesn’t suggest he’ll be around for very long.

Ok, now for the part where I wildly speculate a little bit, position by position. I’m going to avoid talking about who might jump into the portal; I have a few tabbed as portal risks, but I don’t pretend to know anything about how any given player feels about their role on the team.

  • Running back: I don’t anticipate that either Ulysses Bentley or Jam Griffin would be drafted should they elect to leave. Bentley could potentially grad transfer, but he’s worked himself into a pretty important role for the offense. Griffin appears to have arrived at Ole Miss via grad transfer, so his options are more limited: play football or don’t.
  • Wide receiver: whenever Tre Harris has a good game, he looks like he’s daring 32 NFL owners not to draft him in the first round. I’ve heard unsourced rumors that maybe his actual draft projection isn’t THAT great, but it’s pretty hard to believe he’d go any lower than the 4th round. Either way, it would almost certainly take an unusual situation and a load of NIL cash for him to stick around. Jordan Watkins and Dayton Wade are a bit harder to parse. Retaining one or both would be HUGE for Lane Kiffin’s offense heading into next year. And while I don’t think either would be drafted, they would both get a shot at NFL free agency, and it’s unclear how much more they have to prove at the college level.
  • Heading into the season, it was pretty clear that Caden Prieskorn would be one and done at Ole Miss heading into his fourth year of eligibility. However, after an injury-riddled season that never let the talented tight end show out at 100%, I’d bet Kiffin and co. make a compelling case for Prieskorn to stick around.
  • I have no hot takes regarding the three offensive linemen with COVID years to burn. All of them have been solid in their careers at Ole Miss, and I hope they all stick around.
  • Ole Miss will have the opportunity to convince Cedric Johnson, Jared Ivey, JJ Pegues, and Joshua Harris to stick around for another year. All four have the potential to make an NFL roster, but none would likely be drafted until the later rounds. Still, it’s hard to imagine the Rebs can hang onto all four. Keeping two or three of these guys would drastically reduce the pressure to overspend on prized defensive linemen from the portal.
  • I have no idea what Khari Coleman might do. It’s hard to imagine that he’d be drafted, but you could argue that he was the Rebs’ best linebacker overall. With Ashanti Cistrunk, Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste and Monty Montgomery all out of eligibility, Coleman is one of two returning linebackers with any SEC experience. JUCO all-star Raymond Collins is incoming, and the Rebs brought in Clemson freshman TJ Dudley late last preseason, but you have to think retaining Coleman will be a priority for Pete Golding.
  • Losing Deantre Prince, Zamari Walton, and Daijan Anthony is a big, big blow to the defensive back room; those guys played an obscene number of snaps and made countless clutch plays for Pete Golding’s defense. If there is any way to keep John Saunders in Oxford to start at safety alongside Trey Washington, the Rebs would at least return two thirds of what ended up being a stout trio of starting safeties. I never got a bead on how big of a contributor DeShawn Gaddie was, but if he is indeed eligible for another year, you have to think he’d play a role similar to what Prince and Walton did this year.