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What to focus on as Ole Miss spring practice gets started

Attempting to cut through the clutter, we direct your attention to the areas of most importance this spring.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 TaxAct Texas Bowl Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As February shrinks in our rearview mirror and we draw nearer to spring, there are signs everywhere the drabness of the last few months is fading.

Flowers are blooming, green is overtaking the stale brown, and the sun stays up past 6 PM. But most importantly, it’s time to discuss the goings on at 15 football practices over a 3-week period, which means we will be talkin’ ‘bout practice, man.

Last week, the official Ole Miss football Twitter account used this video with graphics to let us know spring practice was 1 week away.

Hopefully, they will continue to use this announcement format throughout the spring. I know Lane Kiffin and coaches want as little information coming out as possible, but there are still important announcements that could be made, like these:

As a reminder, the last two significant events for Ole Miss football were [bowl game experience redacted] and Transfer Portal Comings and Goings/Signing Day 2.0. Other things have happened but nothing groundbreaking, like Kevin Smith is back on staff as the running backs coach?

I, for one, would be good at truthfully saying, “I have no recollection of that, senator.” I may have missed that during some mild freaking out over Kemp Alderman’s exit velocities (118 MPH LMAO).

Anyway, the point being, it’s been a relatively stable 3 months (even with a defensive coordinator change), which is better than living the chaos life. However, there are still questions to be asked and areas of interest that are more important than others.

As the next 3 weeks unfold, culminating with the Grove Bowl, here are 7 things deserving your attention during that time.

Quarterbacking Feats of Strength Battle

We last saw Jaxson Dart in the redacted bowl game experience piling up 427 total yards (361 passing) and 3 touchdowns while turning it over 4 times. Obviously, those turnovers weren’t all his fault, as issues at receiver and on the offensive line contributed, but [gestures at 4 turnovers].

The season ended with the assumption Dart would be the starter in 2023, but Lane Kiffin and company needed to acquire the services of a backup quarterback because depth at the position was non-existent. As we know, Kiffin convinced not one but two quarterbacks to transfer to Ole Miss.

One of those being Spencer Sanders of Oklahoma State fame, and the other being LSU’s Walker Howard. Sanders has more experience than Dart and Howard combined, but also comes with the disclaimer of “49 turnovers in 42 games.”

Brief aside: YIKES.

Howard was highly recruited out of high school (including by Ole Miss), but had limited on-field moments in his time at LSU that we surely all remember:

  • Getting sacked against Southern in a 65-17 LSU win
  • Going 2-4 for 7 yards in a 63-7 LSU win over Purdue in the Citrus Bowl

We also assumed after the transfers were announced that Dart or Sanders would likely win the starting spot, but according to #sources, Sanders hasn’t thrown in almost two months due to an issue with his shoulder. Maybe that creates an opening for Howard, but, given his inexperience, he would have to perform at a previously unseen outrageous level to challenge Dart or Sanders.

Regardless of what happens in the spring, the point of 2.5 starter-level quarterbacks is to generate competition, which should push them all to be better. Having options is a much better situation than having one guy and saying GODSPEED.

Finding Quinshon Judkins Rest

Our record-breaking son heads into the spring without Zach Evans to give him well-deserved rests. Currently, scholarship players in position to spell him include:

  • Ulysses Bentley IV
  • End of list

A trio of walk-ons are next in line, with freshman signee Kedrick Reescano not arriving in Oxford until presumably this summer. Stating the obvious, Ole Miss needs a healthy Ulysses Bentley IV to provide assurances in the spring that he can provide Judkins relief in the fall.

In the first 6 games of 2022, Judkin’s total touches in each game were 15, 10, 19, 28, 16, and 12. The last 7 games those went to:

  • 26
  • 27
  • 34
  • 28
  • 26
  • 23
  • 25

I realize Zach Evans’ injuries inflated those, and you want your top players getting more touches against the best competition. But those numbers are not sustainable without injury or fatigue at some point.

If you do the math over those last 7 games, it’s an average of 27 touches a game. Over a 12-game season, that’s 324 touches (he had 289 last year).

Based on football being one of the most violent sports on the planet, I would bet multiple American dollars he can’t go 613 touches in two years without missing some time or fading, especially after going the first 289 without doing so.

Of note, when looking at the list of most carries in a season of college football, a familiar name was at the top of the list. Judkin’s position coach, the aforementioned Kevin Smith, carried the ball 450 (FOUR HUNDRED AND FIFTY) times in a 14-game season with UCF in 2007. George O’Leary should’ve done time for that.

Given I have no recollection of O’Leary after UCF, maybe he did!

Number of Cadens on the Roster: 3

Don’t want anyone to lose track. Right now, these are the Cadens:

  • Caden Prieskorn (TE)
  • Caden Costa (K)
  • Caden Davis (K)

I feel confident in saying Ole Miss leads the country in Caden Percentage™.

Defensive Philosophy Shift

If you recall, Lane Kiffin replaced defensive coordinator Chris Partridge with Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding, who does not primarily use a 3-2-6 grouping (he only dabbles in it!). Golding will mainly use a 4-2-5 look, which may not always have 4 traditional defensive linemen but 3 defensive linemen and a hybrid defensive end/linebacker called the “Jack.”

Obviously, we don’t know if he’s going to mirror what he did at Alabama, but it will be similar. In general, we should expect to see a base look and principles of Nick Saban’s Cover 7 defense, which you can read about in detail here.

Basically, it will feature 2 high-safety looks, with a lot of pattern-matching. That means it may look like zone initially, but once receivers commit to their routes, it turns into man coverage. Defenders have rules based on a receiver’s route, and they determine if they should pass a receiver off to another defender or run with him.

The question will be does Ole Miss have the personnel to effectively run that or will Golding have to make tweaks based on what he has or institute more than tweaks that could be described as “overhaul.”

Hey, Another Search for Linebackers

Your leading returning tacklers at the position:

  • Ashanti Cistrunk - 72 (5th on the team)
  • Khari Coleman - 42 (9th)
  • Trip White - 8 (22nd)
  • Reginald Hughes - 6 (24th)
  • Tyler Banks - 4 (26th)

Cistrunk and Coleman (who lost playing time due to injuries) had their moments, but Ole Miss will need much more out of them, as well as have more contributors in the rotation.

Senior transfers Jeremiah-Jean Baptiste* and Monty Montgomery will surely be in the mix, and the aforementioned White, Hughes, and Banks will get opportunities as well.

There is also sophomore JUCO transfer Jameer Lewis, who was a late addition to the 2023 signing class. His size and speed are intriguing, but we should approach with caution given that the words “JUCO transfer” and “Ole Miss” in the same area code.

*Early favorites for David Kellum nicknames for Baptiste include:

  • JJB
  • J-Squared to the B
  • Jean the Baptiste
  • Brother Baptiste
  • Preacher Man
  • The Deacon

Pass Protection Please

As previously mentioned, pass protection was [ahem] an issue last year. When Jaxson Dart would drop back and set his feet, this was often the scene:

10 out of 10 NOT GREAT, BOBs.

That has to get fixed or whomever is taking snaps has no chance to live to tell the tale.

The good news is there are a multitude of options that were on last fall’s roster, with only Nick Broeker not returning, and senior transfers Victor Curne and Quincy McGee will have opportunities to play. Hopefully, a rotation of guys they trust can develop, and we’re not trying to roll through an entire season with 5 guys because many are saying they did not care for that.

Receivers Reset

Last season, this group struggled to stretch the field and got almost no meaningful production out of the tight ends* due to injuries, not being engaged, or suspension. Jonathan Mingo and Malik Heath, the top two producers and their 111 receptions for 1,832 yards and 10 touchdowns, have moved on, leaving Jordan Watkins as the leading returning receiver.

*In the last month of the season, Mingo spent time functioning as the tight end, thus taking away anything he might be able to give the offense outside.

Transfers Chris Marshall, Tre Harris, and Caden Prieskorn* will be WILDLY important to not having a repeat performance from last year. They need to increase the vertical capabilities of the Ole Miss offense and provide options in the middle of the field, both of which will stress a defense on multiple distance levels and make life easier for everyone.

*Maybe Michael Trigg gets in gear and becomes a contributor, but his ability to produce consistently is very much TBD.

Adding a dynamic passing game to an offense with a strong run game would be fun, and we should try to do it. We would not regret it.