Even with the departure of three NFL first-round picks, Ole Miss isn’t going to slip too far in the SEC West. The Rebels return the SEC’s top quarterback in Chad Kelly, and there’s a host of talented receivers waiting to emerge as a replacement for standout Laquon Treadwell. The biggest concern on offense is the line, but true freshman Greg Little could provide stability this fall. Each level of the defense suffered key losses, yet five returning starters form a solid foundation for 2016. Coach Hugh Freeze has to quickly find the right answers, as Ole Miss has one of the nation’s toughest starts to the season, featuring matchups against Florida State, Alabama and Georgia.
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Previewing Ole Miss’ Offense
The Rebels have stability under center, and that’s where all great teams start. Chad Kelly threw for 4,042 yards and 31 touchdowns and is the top returning quarterback in the SEC.
Great quarterbacks need great blind-side protection, and Kelly had that for the latter half of last season when Laremy Tunsil returned from his suspension. Whether he has it this season remains to be seen, and much of that responsibility is expected to fall to true freshman Greg Little. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze raves about Little’s athleticism, but it’s a lot to ask of a true freshman to step in at left tackle from Day 1. Three other offensive line positions will have new starters.
Laquon Treadwell, a once-in-a-generation-type player, leaves a hole at wide receiver, but the Rebels have the depth and talent to be strong at the position once again. Washington transfer Damore’ea Stringfellow had 36 catches in his first season at Ole Miss. Senior tight end Evan Engram is a weapon in the passing game as well.
Senior Akeem Judd and junior Jordan Wilkins are bigger backs than Freeze has typically had at Ole Miss. They both averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry in backup roles last year.
Previewing Ole Miss’ Defense
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In spite of the loss of tackle Robert Nkemdiche, the Rebels figure to be talented and experienced up front. Junior end Marquis Haynes provides a pass rush threat off the edge. His 10 sacks last year tied a school record. Fadol Brown is a bigger body at the other end who could gain more NFL attention if his consistency improves. The wild card here is senior Issac Gross, who missed almost the entire 2015 season after neck surgery. He will be a disruptive presence in the backfield if he remains healthy.
The Rebels must replace two starting safeties but have recruited well at the position in recent seasons. Senior Tony Conner returns at nickel back in the 4-2-5 after missing most of 2015 following a knee injury in Week 3 at Alabama. He was a projected first-round pick before the injury.
Freeze was not able to address needs at middle linebacker to the level he had hoped on Signing Day. He continued to search for players and landed a couple of promising newcomers in graduate transfer Rommel Mageo and junior college transfer Detric Bing-Dukes. Mageo led Oregon State with 87 tackles last year and will be the favorite in August to win the starting job.
The Rebels have star potential at outside linebacker in junior DeMarquis Gates. He became a starter only when Denzel Nkemdiche’s season ended in early November, but Gates finished with a team-high 76 tackles.
Previewing Ole Miss’ Specialists
Junior kicker Gary Wunderlich hit 19-of-25 field goal attempts and converted all 63 PATs to become the SEC’s top scorer at the position. Wunderlich doubled as the team’s long-distance punter. Freeze would like to use junior punter Will Gleeson, a rugby-style kicker, more often and is hopeful that Gleeson will bounce back after struggling late last season. Ole Miss has had solid kick and punt coverage units, but the Rebels have not produced enough big plays in the return game.
The Rebels are 19–7 overall and 11–5 in the league in the last two seasons, highlighted by two wins over Alabama and a dominating win over Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl in January. This team has the talent to contend in the SEC West once again, but the offensive line must become a team strength and provide suitable protection for Kelly. If that happens, the Rebels’ offense should have little trouble scoring points. The defense loses its most talented player in Robert Nkemdiche, but there is star power on every level. Another top-10 finish is well within reach.