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The Ole Miss roster: early returns from Kiffin’s portal and recruiting efforts

The Rebels experienced huge roster turnover from 2022, but have managed to upgrade at several positions.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 16 Georgia Tech at Ole Miss Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As we’ve covered in previous posts, Ole Miss now has 23 commitments for its 2024 class, with more than three months left until the early signing period. Other than Ole Miss hunting for some best-available blue chips and maybe a couple of offensive linemen, that doesn’t leave much left in terms of news for this class.

And dear readers, I really don’t want to write about the class of 2025, much less 2026 yet. Don’t make me do it.

So in the absence of recruiting news, I wanted to throw out some early impressions of the current roster through three games, especially focusing on new additions, and comparing this year’s positions groups to their 2022 equivalents. And awayyyyyy we go:

Quarterbacks: So yeah, Ole Miss might have the best QB room in the country. Jaxson Dart has clearly elevated his game, and is comfortably leading the SEC in QBR, mostly due to his eye-watering 12.53 yards/attempt and 7/1 TD/INT ratio. He’s also been elite as a runner. Not “deceptive,” not “underrated…” elite.

Meanwhile Spencer Sanders and Walker Howard might be the best second and third QBs on any roster, anywhere. Dart’s QBR is 202.4, while Sanders and Howard are at 183 and 192.6, respectively. Is that good?

Compared to last year: The 2023 Rebel QB group is way ahead of the 2022 unit; Dart has come out hot in 2023, while he took a while to warm up last year. And the depth… come on.

Running backs: Through three games, we haven’t seen much of the Rebels’ depth at running back on display. Lane Kiffin and co appear to be focusing on getting Quinshon Judkins’ legs back under him amid the offensive line’s struggles in blocking…anyone. As a result, Ulysses Bentley, Jam Griffin, and Matt Jones have carried the ball a combined 23 times in three games, even with a ton of garbage time against Mercer and a banged-up Judkins. Bentley showed a lot of flash against Georgia Tech averaging 10ypc on 6 carries, while Judkins continues to struggle; it seems like a good bet that his share of carries will increase while Judkins works to regain his freshman form.

Perhaps surprisingly, Kedrick Reescano appears to be in line for a redshirt year; that’s really not what you expect from a top-10 running back, but with the late addition of Jam Griffin, it seems like the coaches weren’t keen on making the four-star freshman a regular contributor this year.

Compared to last year: The slow start to the Ole Miss run game so far isn’t cause for panic, but it’s clearly taken a significant step back from 2022. The loss of Zach Evans is a large part of that; an increased emphasis on pass protection might be another reason the holes aren’t opening up as freely. There is still plenty of talent to work with here, but Ole Miss had the best 1-2 punch in college football last year with Judkins and Evans.

Wide receivers: Yes, hello, it’s 2023 and Derrick Nix is still mismanaging the Ole Miss wide receiver room. It’s become apparent that Tre Harris was far and away the best transfer portal addition for Ole Miss this offseason, but after his (hopefully minor) injury against Tulane, things got dicey quickly.

Jordan Watkins has stepped up his game, and has 290 receiving yards through three games. Dayton Wade continues to be an incredibly valuable pickup, with two absolute circus catches and 215 receiving yards of his own.

After that: yikes. Against Tulane and Georgia Tech, wide receivers not named Harris, Watkins, or Wade had a combined ONE reception, a quick hitter to Ayden Williams against GT. Jalen Knox, Bralon Brown, Caden Lee, JJ Henry, etc. have not caught a ball since Mercer.

Ayden Williams is going to be a star, and probably will start looking like one soon, but it’s clear there’s a learning curve with him in Lane Kiffin’s offense. If/when he really emerges this season, things will start looking a lot better for the WR room as a whole.

Same goes for whenever Zakhari Franklin gets himself in the game. Tre Harris missed most if not all of Spring ball with a nagging injury, but through two games, looks like a superstar and a primary focus of the offense. If Franklin can make a similar jump – after all, he’s more experienced and more prolific than Harris prior to Ole Miss – we’ll be having much different conversations about the Ole Miss wide receiver unit.

Compared to last year: so much is in flux that it’s hard to say, but I’m leaning towards saying this is a better unit. Tre Harris, if he can stay healthy, has the athleticism of Johnathan Mingo with the physicality and contested catch abilities of Malik Heath. Zakhari Franklin could be a great #2 receiver when he finally gets on the field. Jordan Watkins and Dayton Wade are a year more experienced and playing with confidence. Ayden Williams provides some young star power, and there is a logjam of guys pushing each other to work their way into the rotation. But if Harris and Franklin can’t stay on the field, that all goes to hell.

Tight ends: Remember those glorious two weeks of fall camp when tight end was a strength for the Rebels’ offense? Yeah, it was pretty great. Sophomore returner Kyrin Heath looked more than serviceable against Mercer, but disappeared (except for maybe a false start penalty?) against Tulane and GT. Michael Trigg did have a clutch touchdown reception that kept the game out of reach for the Green Wave, but dropped a key TD pass against Tech (after a defensive back pulled him down on the previous play with no flag); it’ll be interesting to see how much the coaches trust him as Prieskorn starts making his way back on the field.

Caden Prieskorn might make his Ole Miss debut against the Tide, but it’s foolish to expect 100% from him. Hudson Wolfe… the limited action we saw from him was extremely encouraging. Hopefully he can make a mid-to-late season comeback and gain some more experience.

Compared to last year: as frustrating as it’s been to watch the position group fall apart, it’s still a better unit than last year. Trigg has a much shorter leash because of Kyrin Heath, and Jayvontay Conner could be relied on to some extent if he’s able to get the playbook down. And if/when Prieskorn comes back healthy, it’s likely a night and day difference.

Offensive line: After putting on a pass blocking clinic against Mercer, Ole Miss was absolutely whipped all the way across the offensive line in New Orleans, before bouncing back to some extent against Georgia Tech. Through three games, offensive line coach John Garrison has started Washington transfer Victor Curne at left tackle over last year’s starter Jayden Williams, and UAB transfer Quincy McGee over returner Eli Acker. The results have been head-scratching at best, and the decision seems a little strange, given that Williams and Acker reportedly took the bulk of the first team reps during fall camp. Look for Ole Miss to keep making tweaks to the offensive line to see if there isn’t something that clicks a little better than what we’ve seen so far.

Compared to last year: Through three games, I’m leaning towards saying this year’s line is better than the 2022 unit. Even against weaker non-conference opponents last year, the Rebel offensive front was unable to keep pass rushers from harassing Jaxson Dart. While Tulane was humbling, pass protection has looked a ton better overall. The run game will continue to be a work in progress, but I’ll still take this version over last year’s.

Defensive line: Just looked back at my comments on some of the offensive position groups, and realized I’m sounding pretty pessimistic about the team. That’s actually not the case! I just think those units aren’t maximizing their potential. The defensive line, however, I’m much more pleased with. Jared Ivey was reported to have taken a step up in Spring/Fall camps, and that has certainly shown so far. He looked a little soft around the edges last year, but now looks like an absolute handful. Zxavian Harris dominated the Mercer game, JJ Pegues made things difficult for Tulane most of the game, and Isaac Ukwu made his presence known as well. Akelo Stone looks like he’s carving out a larger role for himself, Jamond Gordon looks better than in years past… basically, there are a lot more guys contributing across the defensive line compared to last year, and I think that will bear results as the year wears on.

Compared to last year: pretty big nod to this year’s DL unit. The two major departures were KD Hill and Tavious Robinson, and I think the addition of Josh Harris, Stefon Wynn, Akelo Stone, and Isaac Ukwu more than offsets those losses. Additionally, we’re seeing better versions of Pegues, Zxavian Harris, and Jared Ivey.

Linebackers: Linebacker didn’t look like a much better unit on paper than last year’s crew, but so far there have been pleasant surprises. While neither Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste or Monty Montgomery look like stars so far, they’re probably upgrades over Austin Keys, who would be getting their snaps had he not moved on to Auburn. Khari Coleman and Ashanti Cistrunk are both solid, and Coleman has made some flash plays, including a game-sealing forced fumble on Tulane QB Kai Horton against Tulane.

Suntarine Perkins will be a star before the season’s out, if he stays healthy. Ladarius Tennison’s switch to linebacker is still a bit of a head-scratcher for me; I haven’t noticed much from him, good or bad, but he’s likely still getting back to full speed after an ankle injury in fall camp.

Compared to last year: a slight nod to the 2023 unit. While Troy Brown’s 93 tackles will be hard to replace, a healthy Khari Coleman helps, and the overall depth of the unit is much better.

Defensive backs: This one is a bit harder to judge; with TV broadcasts, you rarely get to see much of what the defensive backs are doing before the ball is in the air. It does seem like Daijahn Anthony and John Saunders are settling in as perhaps the Rebs’ two best safeties against the pass, while Trey Washington is looking stout in run support and against wide receiver screens, earning SEC Defensive POTW honors against Georgia Tech. Isheem Young hasn’t played many early snaps, and Teja Young hasn’t stood out to me yet either. Deantre Prince and Zamari Walton don’t appear to be giving up much at their cornerback spots, though it’s early and we haven’t seen any dominant wide receivers yet. Deshawn Gaddie hasn’t stood out for me so far, good or bad, so it’ll be interesting to see more of guys like him, Teja Young, Taylor Groves, and Demarko Williams as the season wears on.

Compared to last year: the defensive backs unit is a slight downgrade from the 2022 unit, which in my opinion is a win. The big losses are Otis Reese and AJ Finley (both on NFL rosters), Tysheem Johnson, David Igbinosun, Miles Battle, Markevious Brown (major contributors or starters for Oregon, Ohio State, Utah, and Purdue, respectively). Replacing those six with transfers from Georgia Tech, North Texas, Miami OH, Liberty, and FAU, without a huge step-down… we’ll take it.