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Stories Written by Parrish Alford
OXFORD – Some positions battles have concluded, some reserves have been challenged, and one freshman wide receiver – Sammie Epps – will be suspended.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze says junior Ben Still will be his starting center when the No. 18-ranked Rebels open the season a week from today against Boise State.
Andrew Fletcher has claimed one part of what will be a two-player approach at kicker.
Epps was arrested last week on charges of driving without a license and possession of marijuana. He’ll miss the Boise State game, and his role moving forward is unclear.
Still held off third-year sophomore Robert Conyers who will still play an important role, Freeze says, as the primary back-up at both tackles and center.
It’s been a close competition between Still and Conyers all month. Eventually one of them was going to be the winner.
“Robert may be one of the most valuable pieces to us offensively because he can grasp all three of those positions and function very well,” said Freeze following Wednesday’s morning workout.
In addition to center, the Rebels have found a place-kicker, at least for short field goal attempts and extra points. It’s Fletcher, a senior from Nashville and transfer from Louisville where he was part of the program but did not see action.
“It’s just his accuracy, and his get-off time is very consistent, under 1.3 (seconds). He’s just been the most consistent,” Freeze said.
Longer field goal attempts will come from either redshirt freshman Andy Pappanastos or true freshman Gary Wunderlich.
Freeze is hoping someone will jump up and claim available playing time at receiver.
The starters are set with Laquon Treadwell and Vince Sanders outside. Quincy Adeboyejo and Cody Core will share time at the slot receiver.
Finding depth has been an on-going search since the beginning of camp. Freshmen Dayall Harris and Markell Pack, redshirt freshman Trey Bledsoe and junior Quintavius Burdette, a former defensive back, are the candidates.
“We need one of those four to get ready,” said Freeze, adding that he will evaluate those players right up until game day.
Epps would have been in that mix if not for the arrest. The Greenwood native was moved from tight end to slot receiver early in camp where it was hoped his 6-foot-5 frame would create a match-up advantage against smaller defensive backs.
“He definitely will be suspended at least for the first game, maybe more,” Freeze said.
Epps was not at practice Wednesday. Falling behind at this time of year could lead to a redshirt season for the four-star signee.
“My initial thought was absolutely yes, but I’m not saying yes to that just yet. I want to be sure I take my time and think through it,” Freeze said.
In eight days, Ole Miss will begin a football season with its highest expectations since 2009.
The Rebels were ranked No. 8 at the start then, and while the end result was Houston Nutt’s second-straight Cotton Bowl victory, a 4-4 SEC finish left the feeling that something was missing.
Now the preseason propaganda machine has Ole Miss inside the top 20 in both major polls.
So with the camp part of preseason closed and all eyes ahead to next Thursday night’s Atlanta opener against Boise State, are the Rebels ready for some football?
The answer is definitely maybe.
Hugh Freeze and every other coach can point to topics he’d like to cover more or positions that need more polish.
Here’s what it looks like to me.
What looks really good: The running backs can be special, with none of them earning All-SEC honors because of how the touches will be distributed among the group.
I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton have already produced at this level and are now experienced juniors. There are power options in Jordan Wilkins and Akeem Judd that really weren’t there the last two years.
Defensively, there is talent and athleticism at most positions, but Robert Nkemdiche and Cody Prewitt could set this group a part.
If Nkemdiche demands the attention at tackle that is expected, it can only make things easier for the end and nose tackle next to him.
That’s just Nkemdiche helping others. He’ll make his own plays, too.
Prewitt, a returning All-American, led the SEC and interceptions and is a fierce hitter.
The coming of age of these guys plus the health of end C.J. Johnson gives this defense exciting potential.
What looks kind of iffy: There are questions on the offensive line. While Laremy Tunsil has All-America potential at left tackle it’s a concern that camp has basically concluded with no starting center named.
There’s a lot of experience flanking the center at each guard. Left guard Aaron Morris was preseason All-SEC last year but tore an ACL in the season opener. Can he regain the form that was expected for him a year ago? If so, he and Justin Bell can take a lot of heat off either Ben Still or Robert Conyers at center.
At right tackle, junior college transfer Fahn Cooper looks the part but lacks the experience. He may set the woods a fire in a week. We’ll see.
The wild cards: Denzel Nkemdiche will miss the Boise game due to suspension. He’s expected back for Week 2, and if he returns to his 2012 form he will make a big impact. That Denzel was hungry and eager to prove he belonged. Plagued by injuries a year ago, his production dropped. Then his off-season decisions suggested contentment with the status quo.
Quincy Adeboyejo is a gifted athlete that Freeze has tried to praise and challenge at the same time this month. If Adeboyejo can consistently catch the football his skill set will lift the Rebels’ receivers to a higher plane.
Then, the camp of junior Cody Core should help answer depth questions at the position.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. Read his blog at InsideOleMissSports.com.
By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – Beginning a third year in Hugh Freeze’s offense has its advantages, but perfection is not one of them.
While Bo Wallace is healthy physically and comfortable in his knowledge of the offense as the starting quarterback for Ole Miss, his familiarity can feel limited because the system doesn’t stay the same.
“We add stuff every single year, and we change stuff all the time,” Wallace said. “The only time I have to adjust is when we do that.”
As camp winds down, Wallace says he had no problem with the shoulder that has plagued him for most of his first two seasons.
He’s roughly a year and a half removed from shoulder surgery and unlike last season has the benefit of a full off-season of strength and conditioning.
“He still makes mistakes that you scratch your head and say, ‘I know he knows better than that.’ The difference in when that occurs and a couple of years ago … He’ll be the first to be angry with himself and say, ‘I can’t believe I just did that,’” Freeze said.
While Wallace is settled as the Rebels’ quarterback there’s been a lot of action around him.
Freeze still has not named a center, and the competition between junior Ben Still and third-year sophomore Robert Conyers could linger into the first few games.
Both will play early on, Freeze said.
At receiver junior Cody Core has emerged to challenge sophomore Quincy Adeboyejo in the slot. They were sharing first-team reps at Monday’s practice.
Freeze has praised the athleticism of Adeboyejo – a four-star prospect from Dallas – while saying he needs to be more consistent in catching the ball.
“You can call that a competition but as soon as one runs a route the other one’s coming in,” Freeze said. “Cody’s had a little more consistent camp with everything that’s asked of you there, but we’re excited about the year Quincy could have also.”
Wallace said he’s noticed increased confidence in Core, who has five catches in two years. Adeboyejo had seven catches for 81 yards last year, one of them a 24-yard touchdown reception against Troy.
“They’re battling,” Wallace said.
It’s been no battle this camp for Wallace. In fact his taking very few reps these days as Freeze takes a look at his backups, Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade, both redshirt freshmen.
Wallace’s reps will increase soon as the Rebels get closer to their Aug. 28 opener against Boise State in Atlanta.
His focus is on minimizing mistakes and making sure his teammates know he’s a leader they can rally around.
“It’s my team. It’s my offense. I’ve said in years past that I have to be more vocal. This year I’ve done a lot better job of that, letting those guys know I care about them,” he said. “I’m going to be around them, and I want those guys playing hard.”
What’s interesting about the Rebels’ No. 18 position in the Associated Press preseason poll is the position of those around them. If Ole Miss is to rise in the SEC West, LSU and Texas A&M are considered the candidates to slide due to attrition at key positions, quarterback and others. LSU is No. 13 and A&M is No. 21.
The Rebels’ first three opponents – Boise State, Vanderbilt and Louisiana-Lafayette – did not make the poll cut, but all are in the receiving votes category.
Rankings have always been for entertainment, and never has that been more true than with a playoff in place for this season.
Still, it will be fun in the first few weeks to see how the Rebels measure up against SEC name brand teams and if this team truly has the goods to climb within its division.
OXFORD – Ole Miss is back on the practice field this week, and the Rebels will begin to turn more of their attention to Boise State, their season-opening opponent on Aug. 28 in Atlanta.
Most of their work has been in the morning, but the Rebels start tonight at 7.
Among the to-do list items for the Ole Miss defense has been to pressure quarterbacks more. That goal was reflected with the defensive linemen signed in February.
Junior end C.J. Johnson says the Rebels have gotten off to a good start.
“We expect to be a lot better. We’re talking about one of the best in the SEC. That’s what we shoot for everyday that we go out and practice. I don’t think it’s a different expectation for anybody else in the room,” he said.
Simply having Johnson back is an improvement. He appeared in only four games last year after leading the Rebels with 61⁄2 sacks in 2012.
Much of the anticipated improvement will have to come from new personnel such as freshman Marquis Haynes and sophomore transfer Fadol Brown.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze says Haynes has been “swimming” mentally as he’s tried to process so much of the defense so soon in camp.
Apparently he’s retained enough to please his coaches. In spite of the return of Brown, Haynes remains first-team at the end opposite Johnson. It’s a spot Brown held at the end of spring drills.
Johnson warns against underestimating Brown, even with his time away. He and Haynes offer greatly different styles as Brown is 50 pounds heavier.
“Fadol’s a big guy. He helps us a lot in collapsing the pocket from an outside standpoint instead of always having speed rushers going and sometimes we leave running lanes for the quarterback, so to have him back to collapse the pocket is huge.”
Ole Miss averaged just 1.54 sacks per game last year, 12th in the SEC and 96th among major colleges.
Losing three members of the secondary – Chief Brown, Tee Shepard and Carlos Davis – to season-ending injuries doesn’t make improvement more difficult, Johnson said.
“I wouldn’t say there’s pressure, because it’s something that everyone on our defense expects.”
The Rebels are also without junior nose tackle Issac Gross right now.
The injuries have stretched the increased depth, but Johnson says the veteran leadership on the defense will help it reach goals.
“I think the way that me, D.T. (Shackelford), Denzel (Nkemdiche) and Cody (Prewitt) come out and practice every day makes people want to practice hard. I don’t really think it’s pressure. It’s just more of an attitude, the way we carry ourselves,” he said.
By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – While it looks like a lot of quality players jumbled together, finding separation among the Ole Miss running backs may eventually be as easy as A, B, C.
Because the difference-maker may ultimately be B-L-O-C-K.
“We all have to block and know our assignments whether we fit into the A gap, B gap or C. We have to know our role as a blocking back,” says junior Jaylen Walton, who gets no pass on blocking just because he’s 5-foot-8 and 166 pounds.
Walton and I’Tavius Mathers were productive last year as sophomores and therefore have an experience edge that will likely lead to them getting the first snaps this season.
That advantage hasn’t allowed them to coast through camp, however.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze has named no starter at tailback and a talented group of six players – many with similar skill sets – has pushed one another through the competition.
Attrition only removed Jeff Scott from the 2013 group, and Scott was less a factor by the end of the season.
Mathers and Walton as a tailback duo combined for 1,086 yards and nine touchdowns, likely All-SEC numbers had they come from one player.
Mathers led the team with 563 rushing yards, and Walton tied with Bo Wallace for the team lead in rushing touchdowns with six.
The Rebels rushed for 190 yards a game last year but were sketchy in short yardage. They were 10th in the SEC in third-down conversions, ninth in fourth-down conversions.
That’s where Akeem Judd is expected to help. At 6-0 and 220, he’s got 22 pounds on Mark Dodson, who also played last year as a freshman, and 30 pounds on Mathers.
“Out of all of us, Akeem is the bruiser, the hard-nosed runner,” Walton said.
That distinction will likely get Judd an early opportunity, but the number of reps for a running back may be directly proportional to his blocking ability.
“I think picking up the blitz will be the No. 1 thing. Can you stand your ground and know the blitz package?” Dodson said.
With Scott, Mathers and Walton ahead of him, Dodson (5-10, 198) played last year but not much.
He expects a bigger role this season because of the work he’s putting in now.
While Judd’s size and power set him apart, Dodson is hoping his study habits will be his advantage.
“I study a lot. I study different fronts and what my offensive line does, whose got who and where to be at certain times,” he said. “I study the different types of blitzes so when (coach Derrick Nix) asks a question I don’t have to tell him a number that’s coming. I can tell him, ‘Oh, it’s a field corner or a boundary corner.’ Things like that.”
Eugene Brazley, who compares with Walton in his shiftiness, and Jordan Wilkins, a smaller version of Judd, are also competing for playing time. Both are redshirt freshmen.
There are a lot of backs with a lot to offer.
Make it happen
Because of that depth their roles as individuals may eventually depend more on what they do without the ball than with it.
“We feel like it’s going to be one of the deepest backfields in a while to hit the university,” Dodson said. “We know that when we’re in there we’ve got to make something happen because there’s another man that’s got the same talent as us. We’re all just out there doing what we can and trying to take advantage of every opportunity.”
By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze says he’s unlikely to name a No. 2 quarterback prior to the Rebels’ Aug. 28 opener against Boise State in Atlanta.
If there’s a need for someone to take over for Bo Wallace circumstances would dictate whether the call would go to Ryan Buchanan or DeVante Kincade.
The two redshirt freshmen were the focus of a Wednesday night scrimmage. Buchanan has emerged as a more consistent passer. Kincade is a gifted runner, a physical asset that can sometimes work against him.
Freeze says he’d like to see Kincade make better decisions.
“I’m trying to make sure I stay in the pocket more and deliver better throws,” Kincade said.
Freeze was pleased with Friday’s workout but not pleased with losing another player for the entire season.
Sophomore reserve cornerback Carlos Davis, a key special teams performer, tore his anterior cruciate knee ligament (ACL) in the scrimmage and will have surgery Monday.
He was the No. 1 candidate at punt returner. Freeze said Trae Elston, Anthony Alford and Markell Pack will now compete for the job.
The Rebels are also without veteran nose tackle Issac Gross. He’s missed most of camp with a neck sprain. He returned to practice earlier in the week but was out again on Friday.
Training staff believe a little more time off will be all that’s needed to get Gross back on the field.
“They have kind of a protocol they’re going to take him through. They think they can improve him doing this if we hold him out for a few more days,” Freeze said.
Woodrow Hamilton and Bryon Bennett have gotten most of the reps at nose tackle in the absence of Gross.
Backing up Bo
The Rebels have a presently healthy and experienced starting quarterback in Wallace. Developing young players behind him has been one of the story lines of camp.
Buchanan’s confidence is increasing.
“I feel like I’ve made a lot of improvement since the spring,” he said. “I don’t think I’m complete yet. I think I did some really good things in the scrimmage. I played well in the two-minute drill, but I’ve got to punch it in in the red zone.”
Freeze says Buchanan has shown himself to be a more consistent passer but notes that Kincade might look better if a plan was scripted to his strengths.
That’s how it would be on a game day but not on a regular practice day when much of the emphasis is on installing the complete offensive package.
Freeze won’t publicly name a backup quarterback. The race for No. 2 won’t have a known winner unless or until something against Boise State necessitates bringing in the backup.
“It would depend on what we’re needing at that moment,” he said. “Each have different strengths. We’ll do everything with both of them, but it would depend on the scenario as to which one would go in.”
By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – Laremy Tunsil wants it all.
The sophomore left tackle for Ole Miss has gifts that could make him worthy of a “Blind Side” sequel, but he’s not content to ride only his pass-blocking assets to NFL riches.
While offensive line coach Matt Luke ponders roles and shuffles players, there’s been a lot of uncertainty up front.
But not at left tackle.
A five-star recruit, Tunsil was rated the No. 1 offensive tackle in the Class of 2013, a status bestowed because of footwork and quickness.
“My biggest asset is pass-blocking … my feet, my quickness. It’s jumping out on them. They don’t expect how fast you are, how quick you are. I can jump out on them and get my hands on them,” he says.
When that happens Laremy Tunsil is most often the winner, and that asset alone turns heads among NFL executives.
Earlier this off-season Chase Goodbread, who covers college football for NFL.com, put Tunsil No. 2 on his list of SEC “breakout” players for 2014.
According to Goodbread, “Tunsil will be as good as any left tackle in the league including 2015 draft prospects Cedric Ogbuehi (Texas A&M), La’El Collins (LSU) and Corey Robinson (South Carolina).”
In trying to become a more complete player Tunsil has maintained a good playing weight at 305 pounds and has gotten stronger.
He wants Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze to run behind him on fourth-and-1.
“I can be that guy. I’ve got to stay in the weight room, work on my hips more, my thighs … get stronger. I think I can make a huge impact if I improve,” Tunsil said.
Luke says Tunsil’s camp has him well on his way to becoming that player.
“His run-blocking is where I’ve seen the most improvement, just trying to finish people,” Luke said. “He really took the challenge in the off-season to get stronger and finish in the run game.”
Tunsil had arguably the best debut season of the Rebels’ talented 2013 class. He was a freshman All-American and was second-team All-SEC by The Associated Press in a year that had six SEC tackles drafted, three in the first round.
Achievements like that would create a sense of swagger in many players. It’s quite possible, though, that Tunsil’s biggest boost to self-esteem has come by feeling himself improve as a run blocker.
“He’s much more confident,” Luke says. “I know it’s hard to believe of a guy with that ability, but his confidence level has really risen. His knowledge of the game has carried over. He’s gotten a lot stronger, and he’s kept his weight right where it needs to be. He’s moving really well, playing really good.”
By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze stopped short of declaring a former five-star recruit done for the season, but he’s not optimistic that Tee Shepard will be rejoining the Rebels this fall.
Shepard was a consensus four-star recruit coming out of Holmes Community College but was rated a five-star prospect by Scout.com when he eventually signed with Notre Dame out of high school.
He quickly established himself as one of the top cornerbacks in the Ole Miss camp, but an injury to the tendon below the big toe on his left foot will likely keep him out for the season.
“We’re waiting on one more opinion, a guy who deals with this every day. Right now, I sure hate it, but it doesn’t look promising,” Freeze said.
Shepard could have the option of playing through the injury and delaying surgery, but that could cause scar tissue to form around the injury and make it unable to fully heal long-term.
A sophomore, Shepard has already used his redshirt season. There is the possibility of regaining a year of eligibility down the road, Freeze said.
Shepard’s injury was the big news as Ole Miss went through a walk-through practice Wednesday morning prior to a closed evening scrimmage in front of an SEC officiating crew.
Starting quarterback Bo Wallace was expected to get only a few snaps in the scrimmage with almost all the work going to redshirt freshmen Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade who are competing to be his primary back-up.
Freeze continues to work with various combinations along the offensive line, but it’s mostly about filling in the backups.
A guard in the spring, redshirt freshman Daronte Bouldin has moved out to right tackle.
Freshman Rod Taylor was getting some reps at tackle but has moved back inside to guard. Junior college walk-on Craig Frigo has impressed offensive line coach Matt Luke and could see some time in a reserve role.
Luke says the competition between Ben Still and Robert Conyers at center is “still a pretty good battle.”
The absence of Shepherd doesn’t mean that junior Mike Hilton will play cornerback exclusively, Freeze said.
Hilton will continue to work also at Huskie, where he had been providing depth behind starter Tony Conner after a June injury to Chief Brown.
If Hilton ends up playing more at cornerback, the next man up behind Conner would be freshman A.J. Moore at this point.
“A.J.’s going to have to get ready. We’re high on him, but we won’t just throw him out there,” Freeze said. “We’d like to redshirt a lot of those guys, but we’ll have to get them ready.”
With an Aug. 28 opener against Boise State just two weeks away, Ole Miss has shown skill at the skill positions.
How much of that it can display in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome will depend on what kind of progress the offensive line makes in the waning days of camp.
At some point this week, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze will name starters at center and right tackle.
The guess here is those will be Ben Still and Fahn Cooper, but whether they stick could be an on-going story line. Winning the job for the first game and being penciled in as a regular aren’t necessarily the same thing.
Last Saturday was only one practice, and there were things Freeze could have done from a play-calling standpoint to offset the Robert Nkemdiche Show, but the Rebels’ inconsistency in the pass game was a reminder of the work needing to be done up front.
It wasn’t only about the line.
There were several dropped passes, though Freeze didn’t seem to be targeting Laquon Treadwell or tight end Evan Engram on every play. They each had a touchdown catch, and both will be primary targets when the action is real.
Freeze also didn’t try to keep his defense honest by pursuing the run game more. It was a day to work on the passing game, and the defense knew that. It’s a fun day to rush the passer when you know what’s coming.
There’s no denying the work to be done up front, however.
Still, or Robert Conyers perhaps, will have the chance to grow at center with experienced guards on both sides in Aaron Morris and Justin Bell.
Morris’ surgically repaired knee hasn’t kept him out of work in camp, a good sign that it will hold up on game days.
Ready on the left
Left tackle Laremy Tunsil has All-America potential, something that will give quarterback Bo Wallace a feeling of confidence that Jevan Snead didn’t have the last time the Rebels began a season ranked in the major top 25 polls.
Cooper, a junior college transfer, has the physical tools and made quick strides early in camp, but not so much that Freeze has felt good enough to declare him the winner at right tackle.
Maybe naming those starters and having five linemen begin to develop chemistry as a first-team group is what the Rebels need to get over the hump.
They do need something.
The days of camp are slipping off the calendar. Soon Freeze and his staff will turn all their attention to Boise State.
Before that time comes, Ole Miss must get better up front or that talent at quarterback, receiver and running back won’t mean near as much as it should.
Parrish Alford (email@example.com) covers Ole Miss for the Journal. Read his blog at InsideOleMissSports.com.