A Hugh Freeze gamble a year in the making will be put in play this season with the Ole Miss kicker and punter.
Freeze redshirted two seniors last year, including Tyler Campbell, a versatile and strong-legged punter who was the NCAA’s statistical champion as a sophomore with a 46.4-yard average.
That average dipped to 43.6 as a junior in 2011, but Campbell added a different style to his game. The previous staff worked with Campbell on what is known as the rugby punt, rolling out and punting on the run. The goal was to get a bounce-and-roll and improve the net punting, and in 2011 Campbell was second in the SEC with 28 punts downed inside the 20.
Campbell has the ability to flip the field, and the punting for Ole Miss seems to be in good hands … or feet.
Kicking is a bit more unknown. Freeze also redshirted Andrew Ritter, who had been the team’s kickoff specialist for three seasons. The Rebels were set with Bryson Rose with the placement kicks, and the hope is that Ritter will be able to provide the consistency that Rose did or close to it.
In the Grove Bowl he was on from close in but not from farther out and will have to contend with freshman Andy Pappanastos, a three-time all-state kicker who holds Alabama’s record for field goals made in a career.
While we chatted on the sideline during a spring workout Rose expressed confidence in Ritter.
Beyond kicker and punter the Rebels could really use some help in kick and punt returns and in defending both. The Rebels were 12th in the SEC in kick returns with a 20.0-yard average, last in punt returns with only a 5.6-yard average.
Opponent returns were a problem. LSU’s Odell Beckham returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of a game the Rebels lost by six points.
MSU’s Jameon Lewis returned a kick 100 yards for a touchdown.
Both of those returns were late in the season. Freeze said lack of depth often showed up on special teams with the number of starters or key players he had to use on those units.
While many folks are looking for immediate help from the signing class, most of that help could come on special teams where it could make large yet subtle contributions.
Jaylen Walton handled most of Ole Miss’ kick returns last year with 26 for a 24.7-yard average. No one else came close to 20 yards on average. Carlos Davis, a walk-on running back, I’Tavius Mathers and Jeff Scott combined for 10 kick returns.
Korvic Neat averaged 5.1 yards on 16 punt returns with a long of 19.
Freeze clearly wanted to take some pressure off Scott, who returned punts just twice in 2012 and averaged 11 yards. Scott had early punt return success in 2011 before teams started kicking away from him. He finished his sophomore year with eight returns for 138 yards — a 17.25-yard average — and a 67-yard touchdown.
Quadarias Mireles will get a look in the return game, as will Nick Brassell if he is academically eligible.