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Spring Football Notes And Observations: Offense

Spring football came and went in a flash; what did we learn?

Ole Miss v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Ole Miss wrapped up its Spring football season Saturday with an offense-heavy Grove Bowl scrimmage that created more questions than it answered about the Rebel squad that will take the field this Fall. It seems as if college football coaches are increasingly apathetic about Spring intrasquad games, and Lane Kiffin seems especially intent to make them as frivolous as possible. With maybe the most intriguing quarterback battle in all of college football going on in Oxford, the Grove Bowl was disappointing in how casual and sloppy it was; the players and fans both deserved a more intense real-game experience to wrap up Spring training, but a comically grim injury situation, plus Kiffin’s aforementioned apathy made it obvious that there were relatively few real conclusions to be drawn from the Grove Bowl.

But we at Red Cup Rebellion dot com don’t get paid the big bucks to throw up our hands and NOT wildly speculate, so here goes nothing.

Ole Miss football has seen several 100%, completely fake QB battles over the years: Jeremiah Masoli vs. Nathan Stanley, Chad Kelly vs. Ryan Buchanan and Devante Kincade, Matt Corral vs. John Rhys Plumlee (the Kiffin version of that battle, not the RichRod version), etc. But this year’s QB battle is very much real.

All the intel coming out of practices suggested that Jaxson Dart has turned a corner in his development, and had a stranglehold on the starting QB spot. With Spencer Sanders trying to work through an injured throwing arm, and Walker Howard with no collegiate starts under his belt, Dart’s two challengers didn’t seem to be in a great place to push him hard. Then, the Grove Bowl happened. Dart played things relatively safe, throwing few dangerous passes, but connecting on just 18 of 37 for 302 yards, one TD and no interceptions. Meanwhile, Sanders went 19 for 27 for 265 yards, three TDs and one pick, and Howard’s stats were shockingly good: 11 for 13 for 184 yards, three TDs and no interceptions.

Upon an initial rewatch, the three QBs looked much more equal than the stats would suggest, but the main takeaway was that we never saw the dominance from Dart that he apparently showed during previous scrimmages. And honestly, the best throws on the day came from Sanders and Howard.

Neither of the three QBs seemed to be able to make quick reads and completions, which mirrored what we saw from Dart all year in 2022. Not sure if that’s a product of scheme, personnel, or both, but Kiffin would be wise to focus on cutting down how often his QBs have to improvise and wait for coverages to break down.

I had seen some speculation that if things continued the way they were going, with Dart handily outpacing Sanders, the Oklahoma State import might quickly export himself and find another program where he could step in and start. I don’t think anyone expects that to happen now.

Ok, enough on quarterbacks. For all the focus on the QB battle, it’s entirely probable that the Rebels will be run-heavy again in 2023, with Quinshon Judkins set to be a potential Heisman candidate. Wisely, Kiffin didn’t let Judkins tote the rock much on Saturday, and when he did, plays were often blown dead long before Q was done finding tackles to break. Good. Behind Judkins, Ulysses Bentley IV had a strong game, rushing for more than 80 yards on 10 carries, and scoring on the ground and through the air. On his 40-yard rushing TD, Bentley shot through a gap straight up the gut, outrunning the secondary. He also made a nice over-the-shoulder grab on a lob pass from Walker Howard after sneaking behind the defense. Walk-on running backs Matt Jones and Fred McAfee both showed some stuff as well, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see either or both earn some carries this Fall.

Wide receiver… this is probably the hardest position to project, due to the rash of minor injuries that struck the position group throughout the Spring. Louisiana Tech transfer Tre Harris, considered a favorite to start at one of the outside receiver spots, was a complete scratch for the semester, while Chris Marshall, Dayton Wade, Jordan Watkins, Larry Simmons, Jeremiah Dillon, Qua Davis, and probably some other guys all missed time as well. In the Grove Bowl, Jordan Watkins and Jalen Knox were probably the two most productive receivers, followed by JJ Henry and Chris Marshall. Jaxson Dart targeted Chris Marshall on several incomplete balls where it was hard to tell who was at fault; regardless, it’s clear that he’ll be relied on to some extent as a downfield threat. He’s got the athleticism and length that begs for the 1-on-1 ball, but he’s got to come down with more of them than he did on Saturday. There has been much talk about Bralon Brown’s strong showing throughout Spring practices, but he did not appear in the Grove Bowl as far as I could see. Brandon Buckhaulter had a couple of nice catches and a touchdown, as did redshirt freshman Larry Simmons. It’s clearly a very crowded and deep room, but it’s not as clear if anyone is going to be productive against the SEC’s best cornerbacks.

I almost included Michael Trigg in my rundown of the wide receiver group; not only was he probably the most impressive pass catcher in the Grove Bowl, he also rarely if ever lined up as a traditional in-line tight end, operating out of the slot and even out wide. Moving Trigg to more of a hybrid role was largely expected with the addition of Memphis tight end Caden Prieskorn, who played in the Grove Bowl but did not register a catch. Prieskorn’s lack of production was a surprise to me at least, but I can almost see that being an intentional decision by Kiffin to avoid showing too much. Trigg played for the Blue squad, while Dart played for Red. At the risk of sounding like a Dart apologist, Trigg’s dominance likely had an effect on the perception of how the QBs played; Trigg made a lot of good things happen for Spencer Sanders. While there was talk of the deep tight end room this Spring, I don’t believe sophomore Kyrin Heath or true freshman Jayvontay Conner caught a ball during the Grove Bowl. And perennially injured blue chip Hudson Wolfe… remains too injured to play in live action.

I’m far from an offensive line expert, and I don’t think the Grove Bowl provided much insight into what we’ll see from John Garrison’s unit this Fall. Starting left tackle Jayden Williams and veteran do-it-all lineman Jeremy James were both out with injury for the entire Spring period, with portal additions Victor Curne and Quincy McGee subbing in for them and doing seemingly a pretty decent job. Eli Acker seems like the most likely candidate to replace NFL-bound Nick Broeker, but there are several guys who could work their way into the rotation, including lanky tackle Cam East, long-time reserve Reece McIntyre, redshirt freshman Preston Cushman, and even true freshman Brycen Sanders.

In the coming days, we’ll take a look at the Ole Miss defense, try to make a guess at the post-Spring depth chart, and talk about portal possibilities; let us know what you thought about the Grove Bowl and Spring ball in general in the comments below.