Ole Miss has increased its win total in each of coach Hugh Freeze’s three years in Oxford, and the 2015 edition of the Rebels could be even better than the 9-4 squad from last season. The quarterback position has uncertainty, but the receiving corps is among the nation’s best, and the offensive line is improving. Leading the way for Ole Miss should be a strong defense, which is headlined by defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche.
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Previewing Ole Miss’ Offense for 2015
Hugh Freeze was hired because of his offense, but Ole Miss was less than dynamic on that side of the ball last year. While the Rebels led the nation in scoring defense, they were just No. 67 in scoring offense. That could change this year if a more experienced offensive line is more productive, and if Chad Kelly, the nation’s No. 1 junior college quarterback, plays with passion and focus and moves away from issues that led to his dismissal at Clemson last spring and an arrest in the winter.
No quarterback starter was named in the spring as Kelly competed with third-year sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade. Kelly’s arm strength, accuracy and mobility make him the favorite. Understanding this is likely his last opportunity to lead a major college football team may make him more focused.
All five starters return on the offensive line. Most of the time that’s a good thing. Left tackle Laremy Tunsil is a likely top NFL Draft pick, but the Rebels couldn’t gain consistency around him last year. Freshman Javon Patterson, rated the nation’s No. 3 guard by 247Sports, should help on the interior. There is potential among other young players, but a handful of linemen will have to work their way back from offseason injuries, including Tunsil, who sustained a fractured fibula and dislocated ankle in the Rebels’ Peach Bowl loss to TCU.
Also coming back from injury is wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, another potential top-10 NFL Draft pick.
Previewing Ole Miss’ Defense for 2015
The Rebels lost two All-Americans in the secondary, but defensive coordinator Dave Wommack was so impressed with new corners Tony Bridges and Tee Shepard that he moved returning starter Mike Hilton to safety before the start of spring drills. Bridges and Sheperd are both tall, long and physical.
Veteran Trae Elston moves from strong safety to free where he’ll help tutor a talented sophomore, C.J. Hampton.
Robert Nkemdiche, another All-American, is back at defensive tackle. Like Tunsil and Treadwell, Nkemdiche is expected to exit the draft board quickly next spring. Unlike Tunsil and Treadwell, he heads into August camp injury-free and in great condition.
He’ll get an assist this season from junior college transfer D.J. Jones, an athletic 300-pounder who should provide both mass and quickness to help stiffen a run defense that wasn’t as dominant as the Rebs’ pass defense in 2014. Nkemdiche gets the headlines for this unit, and deservedly so.
The hidden gem is safety Tony Conner, the fifth defensive back in the 4-2-5. He plays usually near the line of scrimmage and is a sure tackler with good coverage skills.
Middle linebacker is a position to watch. C.J. Johnson will get a lot of work there, but not so much on third downs, and the position will have a committee feel.
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Previewing Ole Miss’ Specialists for 2015
Will Gleeson at punter and Gary Wunderlich at placekicker are both returning starters. Gleeson often punts on the run to get extended roll. He pinned opponents inside the 20 on 24 of 58 punts last year. The Rebels must replace Will Denny, a four-year long snapper.
This may be Freeze’s last chance to do something big with the vaunted 2013 signing class. Barring the unforeseen, Tunsil, Nkemdiche and Treadwell will likely be gone after this season. Conner may join them.
There are questions on offense, but Kelly should make a seamless transition. Freeze helped the lightly recruited Bo Wallace become a three-year starter and tie Eli Manning with 24 career wins.
The defensive line is strong, and if the corners play as well as expected, Ole Miss will again be a factor in the SEC West.