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Ole Miss Football Position Group Outlook: Wide Receivers

The waters are muddy, but there are a lot of big fish in the pond; does that make any sense?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 17 Ole Miss at Georgia Tech Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Big Picture:

Throughout Lane Kiffin’s tenure at Ole Miss, there has seemingly always been uncertainty at the wide receiver position headed into each season. Each year though, someone has stepped up in a big way. After the departure of Elijah Moore following the 2020 season, Dontario Drummond came out of nowhere to lead an otherwise banged-up corps of pass-catchers. After losing Drummond and fellow senior Braylon Sanders to graduation, Jonathan Mingo and Malik Heath stepped up in 2022 to provide a relatively equal 1-2 punch, either one capable of taking over a game.

Another hallmark of Lane Kiffin’s approach to the wide receiver position has been a very tight rotation. In 2021, there were basically six receivers who *ever* played, despite the position group being plagued by injury. In 2022, the top four wide receivers had 178 catches combined. The next four had… twelve. While that trend could continue in 2023, I don’t expect it to. Ole Miss not only has a deeper field of wide receivers this year, they also lack clear front-runners to step up and take the reins as the clear number one guy.

First, let’s take a look at the returners:

  • Jordan Watkins (SR), who transferred from Louisville last offseason, is the Rebels’ returning leader in receptions, grabbing 40 catches for 449 yards and two scores in 2022. Watkins actually reminds me quite a bit of the aforementioned Braylon Sanders; a hair under 6 feet, a bit of a possession receiver, with some deep speed and a knack for occasionally getting absolutely wide open.
  • Another 2022 portal acquisition, Dayton Wade (SR) was somewhat under the radar at Western Kentucky, where he spent three years before making his way to Oxford. Coming in as a non-scholarship player, Wade quickly became a fan favorite in Oxford; he was a staple in the Rebels’ press conference rotation, equal parts funny, earnest, and insightful. Wade turned heads in practice and became a valuable contributor, catching 27 passes for 309 yards and three scores, and also producing on jet sweeps and kickoff returns.
  • Next, Jalen Knox (SR). You’d be forgiven for forgetting about Knox, who transferred in from Mizzou following the 2020 season. He sat out in 2021, and struggled to fight off injuries in 2022, only returning a couple of kicks, and logging no receptions. However, Knox was decently productive in his three seasons at Mizzou, and is expected to be heavily in the mix for Ole Miss this year. Knox is 6’0, but stout; his physicality and toughness make up for a lack of elite measurables.
  • Bralon Brown (rs-SO), a former 4-star recruit, seemed destined for stardom at Ole Miss, but a freshman year injury seemed to put him behind schedule in his progression, and he’s struggled to get on the field. A big-bodied 6’2 receiver, Brown still makes highlight catches in practices on the regular, and made some noise during Spring ball this year after being moved into the slot. Ole Miss has had considerable success in recent years plugging big receivers in at slot; could Brown be next?
  • Other returners who could work their way into the rotation include JJ Henry (rs-SO), an undersized slot guy who’s flashed in each of the last two Grove Bowls, and Larry Simmons (rs-FR), a Hattiesburg HS standout who appears to have a nice frame and good all-around skillset.

The Rebs also brought in three high-profile newcomers who are expected to be right in the thick of things:

  • Tre Harris (JR) was one of the Rebels’ first portal acquisitions for the 2022-2023 offseason, a heralded pass-catcher for Louisiana Tech. Listed at 6’2, 205, Harris was extremely productive for the Bulldogs, and was the 16th ranked wide receiver in the portal, according to On3. He has a highlight reel full of acrobatic grabs, and could easily step into one of the outside receiver positions vacated by Mingo and Heath. The only red flag with Harris is that he missed most if not all of Spring ball with a hamstring injury, and still isn’t 100%. We saw how that played out with heralded portal wide receiver Jaylon Robinson last year…
  • Zakhari Franklin (SR) was brought in relatively late in the portal recruiting process, after Lane Kiffin was forced to dismiss Texas A&M transfer Chris Marshall. Franklin has been putting up video game-like numbers at UT San Antonio the last two years, racking up 174 catches and 27 TDs across the 2021 and 2022 seasons. Listed at 6’1, 185 lbs, Franklin is not a physical freak, but he just… catches the ball when it’s thrown his way. The Roadrunner standout was ranked as the 11th-best portal wide receiver by On3. I don’t believe he is actually in Oxford yet, as he’s finishing up one class in San Antonio. We haven’t heard any cause for concern about Franklin not showing up in Oxford, but missing Spring ball and most of the summer workout program isn’t great for a guy who might be heavily relied-on.
  • Ayden Williams was the highest-rated offensive player in the Rebels’ 2023 high school recruiting class, and he arrives in Oxford with a lot of expectations on his shoulders. First, he’ll be wearing the iconic #1 jersey worn by AJ Brown, Laquon Treadwell, and Jonathan Mingo. Second, the closer we get to Fall camp, the more buzz that emerges suggesting Williams is going to be pretty damn good right away. Listed at 6’3, 190 lbs on the Ole Miss roster, Williams has been noted as having advanced route-running skills for his age and experience.
  • Caden Lee also joins the Rebs from the high school ranks; a polished-looking slot receiver from Georgia, I’d still pencil in Lee as a redshirt candidate.

Biggest Questions:

  1. Will a clear-cut number one target emerge from the crowd? On paper, one might expect Tre Harris or Zakhari Franklin to step up and be The Guy, but as I alluded to previously, Harris has a nagging injury, and Franklin isn’t even in Oxford yet. Watkins, Wade, and Knox are all going to be valuable, but seem more like contributor-level guys than All-SEC caliber stars. Ayden Williams has all the talent, but how realistic is it to expect a freshman to fill that role?
  2. Will Lane Kiffin and Derrick Nix open up the rotation? There could easily be seven or eight Rebel receivers who will be ready to contribute this Fall, but we’ve yet to see Kiffin rotate that many guys. Add in the pass-catching contributions of tight ends Caden Prieskorn and Michael Trigg, and there aren’t a ton of targets to go around. That said, four of the top receivers will be seniors this year (Franklin, Watkins, Wade, Knox); does Kiffin make more of an effort to work the younger guys in so they’ll be ready for 2024?

RCR Hot Taeks:

  1. Get ready to be disappointed by either Tre Harris or Zakhari Franklin. Not because they’re not talented. It’s just going to be hard to seamlessly integrate both of these guys into the offense with both having missed out on Spring practices.
  2. Get ready to be pleasantly surprised by Jordan Watkins, Dayton Wade, and/or Bralon Brown. I know, hedging my bets by listing three guys here is pretty weak, but all three should have something to prove, and have had plenty of time to learn the offense and gain chemistry with Jaxson Dart.
  3. I’m going to take a completely wild guess at how the number of receptions will shake out in 2023. Last year, Ole Miss had 239 receptions as a team; with Dart hopefully improving, and Kiffin potentially adjusting the playcalling mix to be a little less run-heavy, let’s say there will be 280 receptions in 2023. I think those 280 will be distributed roughly like this:

  1. Z. Franklin, 50 receptions
  2. J. Watkins, 40 receptions
  3. D. Wade, 35 receptions
  4. C. Prieskorn (TE), 30 receptions
  5. T. Harris, 30 receptions
  6. A. Williams, 20 receptions
  7. J. Knox, 20 receptions
  8. M. Trigg (TE), 15 receptions
  9. Q. Judkins (RB), 12 receptions
  10. B. Brown, 10 receptions
  11. U. Bentley (RB), 10 receptions
  12. J. Henry, 5 receptions
  13. L. Simmons, 3 receptions

I cannot WAIT to see how disastrously wrong these numbers will be!

Offseason overhaul grade: B.

It’s certainly fortunate that Ole Miss landed Ayden Williams from the high school ranks, because the number of high-profile targets the Rebels were in on outside of him was… not great. Maybe not even existent. Derrick Nix has got to start doing a better job of recruiting blue chip high school receivers to Ole Miss. In the portal ranks, Harris and Franklin are both great additions, but losing Chris Marshall stings, and missing out on portal stars like Keon Coleman, Rara Thomas, Shane Hooks, and Bryson Green, all of whom were favored to end up at Ole Miss at some point, is also not ideal. Still, you have to commend Kiffin big-time for pivoting to add Franklin at the last minute. He would have been a quality pickup under any circumstances, but securing him in a pinch after dismissing Marshall and missing on Coleman was especially impressive.