The first weekend of spring games provided a glimpse of what the SEC could look like in 2014.
Judging from the way Ole Miss played in its annual Grove Bowl, the future is bright in Oxford.
The offense beat the defense 15-12 in a modified scoring system designed by head coach Hugh Freeze, but don't worry about the score. What should grab your attention is the play of some of the Rebels' stars.
What did we learn from Ole Miss' spring game?
Depth and Diversity at Running Back
Ole Miss gets a lot of pub for its wide receivers, most notably former wideout Donte Moncrief and current sophomore Laquon Treadwell. But the bread and butter of Freeze's attack is the running game. Ole Miss' spring game proved that there's a lot of talent, depth and diversity at running back for this year's Rebels.
The star of the spring show was junior I'Tavius Mathers. The 5'11", 187-pounder rushed four times for 121 yards, including a 96-yard scamper inside the 5-yard line, to lead all rushers. Mathers emerged as a dangerous weapon off the edge last season and appears to have picked up right were he left off.
"I’Tavius Mathers is just special," Freeze said in quotes released by Ole Miss. "We’ve got some good backs. Today he made a phenomenal run. Yesterday he made a run where he made two guys miss in space. That guy has improved."
Mathers was a known commodity, but establishing a between-the-tackles running game was the No. 1 job for the Rebels offense, because it would take some pressure off quarterback Bo Wallace in the running game and give Freeze even more options out of the backfield.
The Rebels did that on Saturday, as 6'1", 209-pound redshirt freshman Jordan Wilkins rushed for 26 yards and a touchdown, and 5'10", 198-pound sophomore Mark Dodson accounted for 78 yards and a touchdown. Freeze was very complimentary of those two running backs in my Q&A with him last month, and both proved that they can be reliable, versatile every-down backs in the spring game.
A consistent, versatile, deep running back corps will make the Ole Miss offense tick. It will keep Wallace from shouldering the load, help him keep that shoulder healthy and open up those passing lanes to those talented wide receivers and tight ends.
Speaking of those wide receivers and tight ends, Ole Miss has those by the boatload in 2014.
Laquon Treadwell was a machine in possession situations last season for the Rebels as a true freshman, catching 72 passes for 608 yards and five touchdowns. He was solid in the spring game with two catches for 46 yards and a touchdown.
But check out the diversity. Cody Core, a 6'3", 196-pounder, caught four passes for 51 yards, and tight end Evan Engram had two catches for 77 yards.
Treadwell can be the over-the-middle threat in short-yardage situations. He's already proved that. But the addition of several big targets, including 6'3" Quincy Adeboyejo, who was nicked up late in spring, makes this receiving corps extremely versatile.
The tall and versatile receivers give Freeze options in the passing game. Treadwell can take over some of the deep-threat responsibilities that Moncrief had last season, but he doesn't have to. The flexibility with the wide receivers will allow Freeze to get creative and Wallace to exploit mismatches when they present themselves.
Judging from the spring game, they will be present early and often.
Don't Sleep on the Defense
Ole Miss' defense last season was extremely underrated, and the majority of those playmakers on that side of the ball are back, including All-American safety Cody Prewitt. All Prewitt did on Saturday was notch 10 tackles and force two fumbles.
But it wasn't just Prewitt on Saturday.
True freshman early enrollee safety C.J. Hampton had five tackles as he introduced himself to Rebel fans, freshman defensive end Marquis Haynes had two sacks, and second-team Associated Press All-SEC linebacker Serderius Bryant had a fumble recovery.
A nice mix of new stars and current stars shined on Saturday, and none of them were named "Robert Nkemdiche" or "Tony Conner."
Not only is this Ole Miss defense talented, but it's also very versatile. Nkemdiche moved from defensive end to defensive tackle as last season progressed, and Freeze told me last month that Prewitt's full-time home at the next level is probably at outside linebacker.
This defense is loaded with talent, has built depth over the last two seasons and is poised to make a big jump in 2014.
Is This Team Prepared to Contend for the SEC West?
Needless to say, Freeze was pleased with the spring game and pleased with his team throughout the entire session of practices.
“I’m really, really thrilled with our spring," he said in quotes released by Ole Miss. "I’ve obviously coached a lot of spring practices, and I can’t remember one being better in the area of effort."
But can this team contend for the division title?
It's a giant leap from being a lower-tier bowl team to a division title contender in the SEC West, but considering the relative uncertainty with LSU's offense, Alabama's cornerbacks and Texas A&M's defense, the door is certainly open for the Rebels to make a run.
In order for that to happen, though, the three pieces of the puzzle mentioned above need to be consistent. That was one thing that plagued the Rebels over the last two seasons. But if some of those highly recruited players from each of the last two recruiting classes live up to the hype, the Rebels creating havoc in the West isn't out of the realm of possibility.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All spring game statistics are courtesy of Ole Miss' sports information department, and all stats from last season are courtesy of CFBStats.com.
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