The Ole Miss Rebels are quickly developing a stable of running back thoroughbreds in Oxford.
With starting RB Jeff Scott returning for his senior season, Hugh Freeze should be able to slowly break in sophomores I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton and true freshman Mark Dodson (a spring enrollee) this fall. Randall Mackey may have graduated, but Mathers and Walton now return with a year in the system.
This summer, three talented high school running backs (Eugene Brazeley, Kailo Moore and Jordan Wilkins) will officially join the team as part of the 2013 recruiting class. The most likely true freshman of the bunch to find playing time on offense or special teams may be the speedster, Moore.
Further, there's a chance a walk-on like Darryan Ragsdale matures much faster than expected.
For an Ole Miss rushing offense ranked No. 49 in 2012, greater returns should be expected in 2013.
Here's how I think the thoroughbreds will rank on the depth chart entering the season.
1. Jeff Scott
Over the course of his first three years at Ole Miss, Scott's numbers have progressively improved. The senior's number of carries (197), rushing yards (846) and average rushing yards per game (70.5) in 2013 were all career highs. Additionally, the Miami, Fla., native caught 23 passes, returned three kickoffs and fielded two punts last season.
Beyond jack-of-all-trades back Mackey, Scott had to do nearly everything at running back. For a 5'7'', 170-pound player, that's a lot of work to shoulder in the SEC. While he performed admirably in 2012, fortunately he should have some help this year by way of Mathers, Walton and Dodson.
With true athletes like Nick Brassell, Quadarias Mireles and Kailo Moore joining (re-joining in Brassell's case) the Rebels, the need for Scott on special teams should at least be minimized this fall.
The bottom line is Scott should easily surpass the 1,000-yard mark in 2013, as he should have fresher legs between carries with help from his fellow Rebel running backs.
2. I'Tavius Mathers
Mathers had a coming out party at the 2013 BBVA Compass Bowl, as he rushed six times for 96 yards and a touchdown to conclude his freshman campaign. At 5'11'' and 197 pounds, the sophomore has nearly 25 pounds on Scott. Ole Miss hopes that translates into a bruising option in the backfield.
While he only carried the ball a total of 27 times for 208 yards last season, Mathers was able to learn the dynamic Rebel offense in year one. He's looked solid in spring camp, and he should continue to progress as a player prior to the Rebels' August 29 opener at Vanderbilt.
3. Jaylen Walton
As Mathers' fellow true freshman last year, the 5'8'', 167-pound Walton rushed 23 times for 118 yards. Additionally, he hauled in 26 kickoff returns for 643 yards (including a 100-yard score). Similar to Mathers, Walton displayed his skills in the BBVA Compass Bowl with 56 yards on 10 carries.
Walton provides Ole Miss with a back very similar in style to Scott. Both are shifty speedsters, capable of scoring on any given touch. Being able to shadow the senior starter this year should allow Walton time to ease into what will be an expanded role next year. Nevertheless, he'll still see increased carries in 2013.
4. Mark Dodson
Dodson was wise to graduate high school early, in order to enroll as a student this spring in Oxford. Specifically, he's taking advantage of being able to participate in spring practice. While it'll take a little time to successfully transition from high school to college football, the 5'10'', 193-pound true freshman has all the talent necessary to be an outstanding SEC running back.
Having seen highs and lows over spring practice as a newbie, Dodson will find himself ahead of the game by the time summer arrives. The beauty of Freeze's up-tempo offense is that the more fresh legs he has ready, the faster he can run his fast-break style of play. With the addition of Dodson, there's now one more set of legs ready to be unleashed this year in Oxford.
5. Kailo Moore
Speed, speed and more speed, that's what the true freshman Moore will bring to the field for Ole Miss.
The track and football star won't enroll until the summer, but he should still have enough time to slowly get acclimated with the basics of the Rebel offense. If he picks up the system early, there's no reason to think he won't be utilized sparingly by Ole Miss.
As has already been stressed, the more fresh bodies that are available, the more efficient the Rebel offense becomes. Whether Moore gets one touch or 10 touches per game, he has the speed to take it to the house at any given time. Further, he may also find himself as a special teams weapon in 2013.
If Dodson and Moore can begin to develop into the players they're capable of becoming by the fall, defenses will really have to play a game of "pick your poison" when facing the Ole Miss backfield.
If the stars align in Oxford, the Rebel offense could be downright lethal this season.