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2015 Fierce 40 Previews: #15 Ole Miss

by DJ Boyer on Aug. 28, 2015

#15 Ole Miss Rebels

2014 Recap:

Ole Miss and Mississippi State were both in the top five last year after unbelievable starts. The Rebels like the Bulldogs faltered a bit down the stretch, but the 9-4 record shows Ole Miss can play with the big boys. Still, this team did start 7-0, and they handed Alabama their only SEC loss last season 23-17 at home. Ole Miss was decimated by TCU in the Peach Bowl 42-3, a lackluster finish to one of the finest seasons in the history of the program.

Coaching:

Hugh Freeze turned Ole Miss around from the moment he set foot in the door. Freeze took over a team coming off a two-win season and had posted 14 consecutive SEC losses. The Rebels have made a Bowl game in all three years with Freeze at the helm, and he owns a 24-15 record over that span. Dan Werner and Matt Luke are the co-offensive coordinators, and they inherit a team that was 51st in total offense but having to rebuild after losing a three-year starter at quarterback. Dave Wommack and Jason Jones have a squad that ranked 13th in total defense but lead the nation in scoring defense giving up 16.0 PPG.

 

Offensive Analysis

Quarterbacks/Running Backs:

Ryan Buchanon and Clemson transfer Chad Kelly have been locked in a heated battle for the starting quarterback job. Bo Wallace was a three-year starter, and he broke a number of records that were previously held by Eli Manning. We believe Ole Miss may be one of the few teams that could benefit from a two-quarterback system, and by all accounts both signal callers have looked extremely comfortable running the offense. DeVante Kincade didn’t look bad when under center a season ago, so this team may not have the growing pains at quarterback that many were expecting.

J.W. will look good running the football. J.W. is the initials for both the starter and the backup running back at Ole Miss, and either one can handle the workload. Jaylon Walton and Jordan Wilkins combined for 947 yards with six rushing touchdowns while averaging 6.0 YPC. While the running game was effective, quarterback Bo Wallace carried the ball more than any other player on the roster last season. What separates the running backs is Walton and his receiving ability, where he is way ahead of Wilkins. Ole Miss could utilize some sets where Wilkins is in the backfield and Walton is split as a wide receiver. He has the ability to be effective in the open field and is an excellent route runner.

Best Draft Prospect: Jaylen Walton RB UFA 2016.

 

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:

First off you have to hand it to Laquon Treadwell. Treadwell was already viewed as one of the flite receivers at the FBS level last season but suffered a devastating injury that ended his season early with a nasty leg break against Auburn. Treadwell worked hard through rehab, and it looks like he will be ready to begin the season for the opener. Despite only starting eight games, Treadwell still led the Rebels with 48-632-5. Treadwell already has 120 career catches and will wind up on a number of preseason All-America lists. If Treadwell can show he is fully recovered, he may declare early after this season where he would figure to be selected somewhere in Round 1 or Round 2.

Damore’ea Stringfellow comes to Ole Miss after sitting out a season transferring from the University of Washington. At 6’2” 220 Stringfellow is another big target who could be in the running for Newcomer of the Year in the SEC. Quincy Adeboyejo is another able-bodied receiver who had over 300 yards and a pair of touchdowns a season ago, meaning the wideout positions are set and we haven’t even covered what could be the ultimate weapon.

Evan Engram is one of the finest tight ends in the nation and the SEC for that matter, since much of the top talent at that position seems to be SEC heavy this year. Engram averaged over 17 YPC and is built more like a small h-back that can get open downfield and stretch the defense. This unit is leaps and bounds ahead of where they were at this time a season ago, even with some uncertainty surrounding the health of Treadwell.

Best Draft Prospect: Laquon Treadwell WR 1st Round 2016 (if he declares early, part of the 2017 draft class).

 

Offensive Line:

You have to hand it to Ole Miss and the job they have done in recruiting. The talent is evident along the line, where Laremy Tunsil is not only the top tackle on the team, he is likely the top tackle in the nation and seemingly a no-brainer to declare for the draft and become a top five overall selection. We thought Tunsil had a chance at declaring last season as a redshirt sophomore, but he suffered a season ending injury late in the campaign that squashed any questions of that arising. Tunsil was embroiled in some legal issues in the offseason involving an altercation with his stepfather, but it seems like that has all panned out, charges have been dropped and Tunsil looks like he won’t miss any time as a result.

The rest of the offensive line is filled with seniors, and Ole Miss sports one of the most experienced lines in the conference heading into the season. Justin Bell, Aaron Morris and Ben Still are solid prospects in their own rights at guard and center respectively. Fahn Cooper will man the right tackle position. Cooper started all 13 games a season ago after being a JUCO transfer, and he too will see some attention at the next level. This is one of the top units in the entire country, as there are no glaring weaknesses at any position along this line.

Best Draft Prospect: Laremy Tunsil OT 1st Round 2016 (top ranked offensive tackle on the board heading into the season, likely top five selection with an outside chance of being the #1 overall pick).

 

Defensive Analysis

Defensive Line:

Ole Miss suffered most of their losses due to attrition in the secondary, as the defensive line is mostly intact from a season ago. The numbers may not be there when doing a quick scan of statistics from a season ago, but the talent is there in a big way. Robert Nkemdiche was one of the top recruits in the country a few years ago when he followed his brother to Ole Miss. Nkemdiche has showed flashes of brilliance and spent most of last season playing through injury. Despite pedestrian statistics that included 35 tackles with four for loss and a pair of sacks, Nkemdiche was double teamed more than any player on the Ole Miss defense. Just the presence of Nkemdiche on the field made those around him better, and they had less attention and double teams to fight through. Nkemdiche has a long way to go to be considered the top lineman on the board and a truly elite player, but this should be the year he steps up and becomes one of the most fearsome forces within the SEC.

Marquis Haynes led this team with nine tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks last season but still needs some time to develop into a complete prospect. Isaac Gross contributed eight tackles for loss despite only starting six games last season, his stats should improve. Overall this still feels like a year of dominance for Nkemdiche, but others around him may get the glory of the attention he attracts.

Best Draft Prospect: Robert Nkemdiche DT/DE 1st/2nd Round 2016 (if he declares).

 

Linebackers:

Tony Connor is back to lead an opportunistic squad after his 69 tackles was tops amongst returning players for 2015. Conner is more of a run defender and not one of the more versatile linebackers that will cover backs and tight ends in pass coverage. Conner is an effective tackler and will be counted on as a vocal leader for the defense. C.J. Johnson has the ability to have a significant presence as a pass rusher, and he needs to be accounted for. Aside from Robert Nkemdiche, no other defender on this Rebel defense has as high an upside as Johnson. He just needs to put it all together and show the consistency.

Denzel Nkemdiche is back after injuries limited his contributions to seven games and three overall starts during 2014. Christian Russell will play the backup middle linebacker, but he can play the outside, as Ole Miss seems to want to use him more along the edge in certain packages. This is a solid yet unspectacular linebacker corps overall.

Best Draft Prospect: Tony Connor LB 4th Round 2017.

 

Secondary:

Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson have both moved on to the NFL, and this is where the defense will feel it the most. Mike Hilton is a versatile player who will move around the secondary, but safety Trae Elston will need to step up and be the leader in the back of the defense. Elston played through some nagging injuries a season ago, and he dropped a few easy interceptions, with the playmaker Golson now departed those turnover chances need to be converted.

Tee Shepard will be looked at to add some spark to the secondary after coming back from a tendon tear in his foot that required surgery. Shepard is another top ranked JUCO prospect coming over. Ole Miss is one of the most prominent teams at the NCAA level when it comes to dependence and recruiting amongst JUCO players. That will be the case on the other side at corner, as Tony Bridges will start opposite Shepard, and he too is coming over from the JUCO ranks. We expect some growing pains in the secondary so the front line needs to be more active and apply pressure on a consistent basis.

Best Draft Prospect: Trae Elston S UFA 2016.

 

Special Teams

Will Gleason and Gary Wunderlich are back at punter and kicker after starting as freshman. Wunderlich split time with Andrew Fletcher at kicker, and he was 6-8 with his only misses being a pair of 52 yarders, as he was a perfect 6-6 inside of the 50 yard mark. Gleason averaged nearly 43 YPK and registered only a pair of touchbacks in his 58 punts. Kick return coverage was a sore spot last season, as opponents got the best of Ole Miss in this department. Punt return coverage was among tops in the conference although Ole Miss failed to take a punt or kickoff for a touchdown in 2014. Both primary return men are back from last season with Jaylen Walton handling kickoff duties and Markell pack handling punt returns.

Best Draft Prospect: Will Gleason P UFA 2018.

 

2015 Schedule

Once again Alabama comes calling early, and it will be week 3, the first road game for the Rebels. Florida, Auburn and Egg Bowl opponent Mississippi State will all be road contests this season, so the schedule is far from a cakewalk. The last four games on the schedule are brutal in particular with the Auburn road contest and Egg Bowl sandwiched by home contests with LSU and Arkansas. Throw in Texas A&M at home to start this run, and you could be seeing five ranked opponents in a row to end the year…yikes.

 

Draft Prospects & Outlook

In Laremy Tunsil and Robert Nkemdiche we have prospects that are not only solid locks for the next level but arguably the best at their respective positions heading into this season. Watching how Laquon Treadwell rebounds after his leg injury will be key to see if he declares, which means if all of these prospects declare for 2016 we could be looking at three first rounders from Ole Miss. The entire Ole Miss offensive line could be drafted, so seeing how they gel this season will also be key as the entire line seems to have NFL talent.

 

DJ Boyer