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Ole Miss Football: Running Game Still a Work-in-Progress

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterMay 15, 2015

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What if I told you that Ole Miss' biggest spring question was still a work-in-progress, and that head coach Hugh Freeze is happy with where the players battling for that position are but that there's still a long way to go?

You'd probably assume that the next sentence would have something to do with the three-way quarterback battle raging in Oxford that includes junior college transfer Chad Kelly and redshirt sophomores DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan.

You'd be wrong.

The most important position battle in Oxford is the one to be the "thunder" to running back Jaylen Walton's "lightning" in the Rebel backfield.

The Rebels have finished 10th or worse in the SEC in yards per carry in each of Freeze's three seasons as head coach. They finished 11th last season with 4.25 yards per carry and 10th in yards per game at 155.46. Against Arkansas in late November, they netted just 63 rushing yards on 33 carries and gained just nine rushing yards on 37 carries against TCU in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. 

Ole Miss RB Eugene Brazley
Ole Miss RB Eugene BrazleyWesley Hitt/Getty Images

Eugene Brazley, Akeem Judd and Jordan Wilkins are all competing to earn bruiser carries for the 2015 Rebels. Of that trio, Wilkins—a 6'1", 209-pound sophomore who finished second on the team in rushing last year with just 361 yards and one touchdown—was the most impressive this spring.

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"Wilkins is going to be a solid player for us," Freeze said in quotes released by Ole Miss. "He is a good pass protector and a hard runner. He can get the football out of the backfield. I think he sees that now is his time to start getting more reps and more opportunities to help this football team. He has been good this spring."

Ole Miss RB Jordan Wilkins
Ole Miss RB Jordan WilkinsRogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

Only with the first team, though. 

Injuries decimated Ole Miss' offensive line this spring. Star tackle Laremy Tunsil broke his leg in the loss to TCU and missed all 15 practices. According to Hugh Kellenberger of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, starting guard Aaron Morris, center/tackle Robert Conyers, tackle Daronte Bouldin, tackle Davion Johnson, center Sean Rawlings and tackle Talbot Buys all missed practice time this spring as well.

On top of that, sophomore Christian Morris was just back off battling the injury bug, and Jeremy Liggins—the massive former tight end/Wildcat quarterback—was playing as an offensive lineman for the first time as a Rebel.

Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze
Ole Miss head coach Hugh FreezeRogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

The injuries prevented Freeze from getting a good gauge on his running backs.

"It was a bit unfair not only for them, but for the quarterback who had that rotation of playing with the second and third units," Freeze said on Tuesday's coaches teleconference. "We got those kids better up front, but our defensive line is really talented and deep, so that makes it very difficult for us to evaluate how those guys did. When they drew the straws to go with the first guys, I saw good signs from all of them."

Judd is a 6'0", 222-pounder from Durham, North Carolina, who redshirted last year after moving over from Georgia Military College. At 5'9", 189 pounds, Brazley is more of the happy medium between a bruiser and an edge threat.

Freeze was impressed with the straight-line speed that Brazley showed this spring, and that could be a huge asset for the 2015 Rebels.

"We are excited about Eugene's progression," Freeze said. "[He] ran one of our fastest 40-yard dash times when we tested right before we broke for May."

The injury issues up front and inability of the staff to get a really good gauge on where they stand with the running back position could be a blessing in disguise, though. Those backup offensive linemen got plenty of work this spring with both the first and second teams, and that experience will be invaluable to them as backups once the starters get back to full strength.

That will help the running backs continue to develop during fall camp. In an ideal world for Freeze, it will also provide the balance that Ole Miss desperately needs to become a legitimate SEC West title contender.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports' composite rankings.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on Sirius 93, XM 208.

Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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