Ole Miss fans are ready for the upcoming season.
On March 17, Hugh Freeze's Ole Miss Rebels officially begin spring practice.
On the heels of a remarkable 7-6 turnaround last season, including a 38-17 win over Pitt in the BBVA Compass Bowl, the Rebels have their eyes on what dreams may come in 2013.
The future undoubtedly looked bright after Freeze helped change the culture surrounding Ole Miss football last season and turned the program into a winner. However, the head coach wasn't satisfied.
On February 6, National Signing Day, Freeze inked the No. 5 recruiting class in America (ESPN). A stellar class from top to bottom, the class was highlighted by four 5-star recruits: DE Robert Nkemdiche, OT Laremy Tunsil, S Tony Conner and WR Laquon Treadwell.
After summer practice, Ole Miss will likely mix these true freshmen into the fall rotation. However, this spring the Rebels will return the vast majority of their 2012 starters. Specifically, only starting OG A.J. Hawkins, RB Randall Mackey and TE Ferbia Allen are lost from last season. Freeze will have the services of essentially the entire starting defense and all but three offensive starters for spring practice. That's a pretty good sign of things to come.
Further, eight mid-year enrollees will be available this spring in Oxford: ATH Anthony Alford, ATH Nick Brassell, C Austin Douglas, DE Lavon Hooks, WR Quadarius Mireles, RB Mark Dodson, TE Christian Morgan and P Andy Pappanastos. It's a quality group of players, each of whom will have a shot to make a name for himself.
Let's take a look at how spring football shapes up in Oxford.
QB Barry Brunetti hopes to find a home on offense.
Rebel fans will get a chance to see their team in action April 13 in the Grove Bowl.
The official spring practice schedule, open to the public, can be found at olemisssports.com.
Practice Schedule: Practices begin Sunday, March 17 at 3 p.m.
Spring Game: The Grove Bowl
Date: Saturday, April 13
Time: 1:00 PM, CT
Where: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium (Oxford, MS)
WR Donte Moncrief looks for another solid year.
What to Watch for on Offense
On offense this spring, the Rebels will be out of sorts with starting QB Bo Wallace recovering from recent shoulder surgery. Reserve QBs Barry Brunetti and Maikhail Miller will share snaps under center, but neither are expected to see significant time at quarterback this fall. Miller could end up the top reserve to Wallace, while Brunetti likely ends up taking snaps at various other positions. The development of Miller will be interesting to watch, especially with Wallace sidelined for now.
The biggest concern for Freeze on offense will be replacing RB Randall Mackey. While starting RB Jeff Scott returns for his senior season, the Rebels must find one or two guys capable of playing the key role Mackey played in 2012. Scott is a diminutive, speedy back capable of taking it to the house on any given down, but Ole Miss must have more than just Scott to be successful this season. If Scott goes down with another ankle injury, offensive coordinator Dan Werner needs to have guys read to step in.
Look for true freshman Mark Dodson and sophomores I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton to battle for the vacancy left by Mackey. It would serve the three players well to look solid this spring, because RB Kailo Moore will be among a host of incoming true freshmen looking for playing time in the summer. Another athlete that could line up in the wild rebel is transfer Anthony Alford from Southern Mississippi (although he must sit out the 2013 campaign as a transfer).
Minus TEs Ferbia Allen and Jamal Mosley in 2013, true freshman TE Christian Morgan will begin his Rebel career with a chance to leave spring as the starter. His only real competition over spring ball will be redshirt freshman John Youngblood. However, true freshmen Evan Engram and A.J. Jackson will arrive on campus this summer looking for playing time themselves.
LB Denzel Nkemdiche is ready for an encore.
What to Watch for on Defense
On the defensive side of the ball, the deck remains loaded. Essentially the entire Rebel defense returns, minus defensive line reserves E.J. Epperson, Uriah Grant, Jason Jones and Gilbert Pena. That's alright, though—Junior college transfer DE Lavon Hooks will be available for spring practice as a mid-year enrollee, and this summer, the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, DE Robert Nkemdiche, arrives on campus. Both youngsters should work their ways into the rotation early.
Beyond the incoming freshmen, the Ole Miss defense is a young bunch with loads of talent. LB Denzel Nkemdiche, DE C.J. Johnson and DB Trae Elston are just a few of the rising stars in the SEC.
Cornerbacks coach Wesley McGriff has departed Ole Miss for the New Orleans Saints. The outspoken coach had pieced together a quality secondary heading into the upcoming season, highlighted by the signing of S Tony Conner out of Batesville, MS. How will the unit respond without McGriff this spring? Where will returning Rebel Nick Brassell fit into the secondary this spring? Who will fit in at husky for the Rebels?
There are a lot of questions to be answered surrounding the Ole Miss secondary. Nevertheless, it's a quality group that should be very solid this fall once a few questions are answered.
Ole Miss will replace a starting kicker and punter in 2013.
What to Watch for on Special Teams
As for special teams, starting K Bryson Rose and P Jim Broadway have graduated. This spring, look for senior Andrew Ritter to assume kicking duties and senior Tyler Campbell to punt. While both seniors enter spring with the starting jobs, greyshirt freshman K Andy Pappanastos (another spring enrollee) will at least provide some quality competition at kicker. However, it's Ritters's job to lose.
Fielding kick returns will again be Jaylen Walton and Carlos Davis. On punt returns, Korvic Neat and Jeff Scott return as the starters. However, this season the Rebels may rely more heavily upon Scott as strictly a running back with Randall Mackey gone. All eyes will be on Walton this spring, as he hopes to impress special teams coaches with his return abilities at both spots.
Athletes like Nick Brassell, Quadarias Mireles and Kailo Moore could also figure into the picture on kick or punt returns (although Mireles and Moore won't arrive until summer).
For a team on the rise, consistent special teams play will be crucial for the Rebels this season.
The Big Picture
The Big Picture
On a larger scale, Freeze will spend time this spring working to further install his complex offensive scheme. In his initial year at the helm in 2012, the Rebels were only able to run the up-tempo offense to a certain degree. With enhanced conditioning and time for players to have adjusted more to the offensive philosophy, the head coach will now look to speed up the level of play.
Spring ball means the 2012 season is truly a thing of the past. It should be interesting to see what unfolds on the practice fields this spring in Oxford, as the Rebels look to take another step toward their long-term goals.
It's a truly talented group, capable of again surprising the country this year.