Ole Miss Football: Position-by-Position Spring Practice Preview
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Spring practice begins in Oxford on March 17, and Rebel coaches, players and fans can't wait.
Hugh Freeze returns all but three starters in 2013 on a team that went 7-6 last season. Remember, this very same team posted seasons of 2-10 in 2011 and 4-8 in 2010 under former coach Houston Nutt.
Hopes are high around the Ole Miss program entering spring ball, as they should be.
Prior to the arrival of freshmen in ESPN's No. 5 recruiting class this summer, spring practice should provide Ole Miss coaches with the perfect opportunity to evaluate both returning and rising talent.
Let's take a position-by-position look at the Rebel program this spring.
Senior QB Barry Brunetti
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It'll be an interesting spring at quarterback, with starter Bo Wallace recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
So, who runs the show this spring?
The only options on the table are senior Barry Brunetti or sophomore Maikhail Miller. However, assuming Wallace returns healthy this summer, neither Brunetti or Miller figure to be under center much in 2013. Nevertheless, these are the two Rebels that will split snaps this spring. You go with what you've got.
While Brunetti, a transfer from West Virginia, never really panned out at quarterback, he'll likely find his way into the mix offensively at various positions within Hugh Freeze's complex offensive scheme by fall.
Miller only saw action in two games last season, completing two passes on six attempts. The No. 20 overall quarterback by ESPN out of high school, Miller provides a more bruising option than Ole Miss has seen in some time. The 6'2'', 240-pound sophomore will likely end up the top reserve behind Wallace. However, at his size Miller can still give Ole Miss a different option in short yardage situations.
The development of Miller this spring should be interesting, as should seeing where Brunetti may also fit into things on offense.
Senior RB Jeff Scott faces stiff competition.
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Senior speedster Jeff Scott returns for a final season, but "Mr. Everything" Randall Mackey has graduated.
Two things must happen for the backfield to lessen the burden on QB Bo Wallace in 2013:
1. Find another player or two capable of filling in for Mackey.
2. Build a ready-to-go stable of backs behind the smaller, often injury-prone Scott.
Fortunately for the Rebels, neither should be much of a problem by the time fall arrives.
When Scott (5'7'', 170 lbs.) went down in the 2013 BBVA Compass Bowl, the 6'1'', 190-pound I'Tavius Mathers picked up the slack by rushing six times for 96 yards and a score. Also stepping up to the challenge was Jaylen Walton (5'8'', 164 lbs.), rushing 10 times for 56 yards. There's no question they're different types of backs, but both could figure into the Rebel offense prominently.
Mark Dodon, a true freshman and early enrollee, will get a chance to make his mark in the backfield this spring prior to slew of talented freshmen arriving this summer. The Parade All-American and 2012 Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year was simply dominant during his high school days in Shelby County, TN (greater Memphis, TN), ending his career as the all-time leading rusher in Shelby County history. The key for Dodson will be how quickly he picks up the style of play in Freeze's offense.
The lone junior of the bunch, Nick Parker, will need to impress often this spring. Primarily a special teams player last season, the junior may well see an end to his hopes at running back with anything less than a spectacular spring. The talent level is simply getting too high.
While Mackey was a jack of all trades on offense, the best bet for the Rebels may be using several of these athletes to fill his role this season. Not only would the move keep fresh legs in the backfield, but it would also increase depth in the event of any injuries.
Competition will be stiff this spring, but competition breeds success. Freeze won't complain.
WR Donte Moncrief has become a fan favorite.
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Led by junior standout Donte Moncrief, the Rebel wide receiver corps should be a tough one to contain in 2013. Returning their top three yardage leaders through the air, Moncrief, Ja-Mes Logan and Vince Sanders, a big focus this spring will be re-incorporating Collins Moore into the mix offensively.
Moore has only caught eight balls for 122 yards as an Ole Miss Rebel. If not hampered by injuries at Ole Miss (surgeries on both shoulders), Moore would have likely been the starting slot receiver. At 6'1'', 196 pounds, he has the potential to play a major role in Freeze's fast-break offense. With Moncrief expected to see his fair share of double-coverage, Moore could be a breakout star for the Rebels in 2013.
His primary competition this spring will be senior Korvic Neat who caught 25 balls for 257 yards last season. While Philander Moore also returns for his final season, his services are likely to mostly be used on special teams. However, he's sure to see a few balls thrown his way on offense.
It's a unit that can only get better, as high school phenom WR Laquon Treadwell gets to camp this summer in Oxford to increase the level of competition.
Tight end position open for the taking in Oxford.
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While there was no earth-shattering production at tight end last season for the Rebels, seniors Ferbia Allen and Jamal Mosley did combine for 23 catches, 309 yards and one touchdown. For Hugh Freeze's offense to be as dynamic as he wants it to be this season, there needs to be an enhanced contribution from the tight end spot. There's good reason to believe it may happen, too.
Enter Plano, TX true freshman Christian Morgan.
The 6'4'', 254-pound Texan came out of high school rated the No. 11 tight end in the nation per Scout.com. A larger, more physical tight end than the Rebels have seen in some time, the coaching staff in Oxford will rely heavily upon Morgan this spring as an early enrollee.
Morgan's only competition this spring will be redshirt freshman John Youngblood. Much is expected of the true freshman, but could the redshirt Youngblood turn heads himself?
While Morgan and Youngblood will see nearly all of the action this spring, talented true freshmen Evan Engram and A.J. Jackson will provide more options in the summer.
Replacing G A.J. Hawkins is mission critical for Ole Miss.
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Who's going to replace the lone departing offensive linemen, G A.J. Hawkins?
That's the top question in offensive line coach Matt Luke's mind heading into spring ball.
Starting C Evan Swindall, G Aaron Morris (out this spring recovering from shoulder trouble) and Ts Emmanuel McCray and Pierce Burton each return for the upcoming season. As for reserves, Justin Bell, Robert Conyers, Jared Duke, Corey Gaines and Patrick Junen will be among a host of players hoping to find playing time on the line. Further, junior college transfer C Austin Douglas will join the competition as an early enrollee.
The nation's No. 1 OT, Laremy Tunsil, arrives in Oxford this summer along with talented OT Austin Golson. There's good reason to believe both athletes will work their way into the offensive line rotation early at Ole Miss, as building quality depth is crucial in the SEC.
Rebel defense should be even better in 2013.
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Shifting to the other side of the ball, the Rebel defense returns 11 starters this season.
Returning 11 starters in the SEC is a huge advantage for a young team looking to the future, but depth becomes paramount to compete for weekly victories in such a competitive league.
While Ole Miss returns starting DEs C.J. Johnson and Cameron Whigham, DT Byron Bennett and NT Issac Gross, lost are top reserve DEs E.J. Epperson and Jason Jones and DTs Uriah Grant and Gilbert Pena. However, the Rebels will benefit from returning reserve DEs Channing Ward and Carlos Thompson and DTs Woodrow Hamilton and Carlos Martin. It should make for an interesting spring.
All eyes will be on Ward to see if he is ready for even more minutes in the Rebel defense. He's a player that has tremendous potential and is only entering his sophomore season.
One young Rebel to watch out for is Johnson. He's a star on the rise in the SEC.
A welcome addition this spring, as another early enrollee, will be junior college transfer DT Lavon Hooks (6'4'', 240 lbs.). The No. 1 junior college prospect in America per 247Sports.com, Hooks is expected to make an immediate impact for the Rebels.
While defensive line coach and Scout.com 2013 Recruiter of the Year Chris Kiffin will try and prepare returning reserves for enhanced roles this year, he'll be licking his chops to get to work with the nation's overall No. 1 prospect this summer: DE Robert Nkemdiche.
The Rebels finished 2012 ranked No. 4 nationally in tackles for loss and No 11 in sacks. Throw Hooks and Nkemdiche into the mix, not to mention expanded roles for reserves, and this is a unit capable of being extremely good in 2013.
LB Denzel Nkemdiche looks forward to more trophies.
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Reserves Keith Lewis, Serderius Bryant and Temario Strong will be back on the field, while senior D.T. Shackelford will make his triumphant return for Ole Miss. Having suffered through multiple health issues with his knee over the past two seasons, the Decatur, GA native will finally get a chance to play again.
An extremely gifted athlete and team leader, it'll be interesting to see how Shackelford fits back into the grand plan at linebacker. Better yet, could the 6'1'', 250-pound linebacker slide up to the defensive line in some capacity to give Ole Miss added depth up front? Regardless, spring ball should allow him time to again get accustomed to game speed ahead of the summer.
At Husky 5'8'', 182-pound sophomore Mike Hilton is back for the Rebels. While he played admirably late in the season at the hybrid spot, it would behoove Hilton to have a great spring. Why? This summer, 6'2'', 205-pound safety Tony Conner arrives in Oxford as a true freshman and is expected to get a serious look at Husky. Regardless, they're both too athletic to not find quality minutes in 2013.
S Trae Elston is a player with loads of talent.
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Wait, who's playing where in the secondary?
That was a common question from the stands last fall in Oxford, but one that should hopefully be far less confusing come August 29 when Ole Miss takes on Vanderbilt. The only player lost to graduation is Wesley Pendleton, and there is a lot of talent on deck.
Cornerbacks coach Wesley McGriff recently left for the New Orleans Saints, and Oklahoma State's Jason Jones has been hired to assume his duties in Oxford. A former safety at Alabama himself, Jones knows what it takes to be a successful unit in the SEC.
At cornerback, starters Senquez Golson and Charles Sawyer return. Behind those two are a host of players with reserve experience: Cliff Coleman, Dehendret Collins, Louis Covington and Anthony Sandifer. New competition this spring will be junior college athlete and early enrollee Quadarias Mireles. He's a dynamic player that can fit in at various spots, but his first audition as a Rebel will be at cornerback.
Let's not forget one Nick Brassell, either. Returning to Oxford after being an academic casualty, the young man has a lot of work ahead of him. This spring and summer, he'll have to work hard to become academically eligible before the fall. He's on a short leash with Hugh Freeze, but nonetheless he's being given a second chance. What else can he ask for?
Brassell is a player with NFL written all over him. He knows it, Hugh Freeze knows it, as does anyone familiar with his talents. If he can become eligible, he's the clear choice to line up opposite Sawyer at cornerback. However, it's a story still to be written.
Moving to safety, starting free safety Cody Prewitt and rover Trae Elston are back as two of the hardest-hitting players in the SEC. The underclassmen saw success last season and their stock should rise even higher in more permanent positions moving forward. Additionally, Quintavius Burdette will likely get looks at rover behind Elston.
Seeing somewhat limited time in 2012, Chief Brown, Frank Crawford and Brishen Matthews return this spring as reserves. It's great to have players like Prewitt and Elston in the starting lineup, but again building depth will be fundamental for long-term success.
Mark it down right now, this unit may end up being one of the best in the SEC this year.
Strong kicking game crucial to winning close games.
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On special teams, starting K Bryson Rose and P Jim Broadway have graduated.
Ritter is the clear-cut leader to kick, but a greyshirt freshman named Andy Pappanastos (a spring enrollee) may provide friendly competition this spring. However, it's Ritter'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 Ole Miss may rely more heavily upon Scott as strictly a running back with Randall Mackey out of the picture. Much attention will be focused upon Walton this spring, as special teams coaches could look to the sophomore to become a bigger part of return teams.
Athletes like Nick Brassell, Quadarias Mireles and Kailo Moore could also figure into the picture on kick or punt returns (although Moore won't arrive until summer).
Fortunately for the Rebels, there will be several different options to consider ahead of fall.
Ultimately, spring ball means just one thing: fall football is not far away.
In the words of Rebel fans, "Are you ready?"