Five areas of focus for Ole Miss heading into August camp:
Offensive Line: Four starters return here. There are pros and cons to that statement. The experience is welcome, but these guys have to protect the passer better. The Rebels ranked No. 97 last year in sacks allowed at 2.62 per game.
They also need to improve their physicality in short-yardage situations.
Hugh Freeze has always said the offensive line would be the last to “get it” regarding the up-tempo offense.
Having spent a year in the system should help. However, Freeze is hopeful that several freshmen will play, and those guys haven’t spent a year in the system. Nor a spring.
Cornerback: The Nick Brassell question remains unanswered at this time. If Brassell qualifies academically the Rebels have three pretty solid corners. Senquez Golson is more athletic than Charles Sawyer, but Sawyer’s wealth of experience is very important.
Brassell has been called an “NFL corner” by Freeze.
The three of them make a nice rotation, but if there’s an injury or two, the depth behind them is not at the same level.
Reduce turnovers: This is about interceptions. Ole Miss fumbled 11 times and ranked No. 63 in the nation in turnover margin. Nineteen teams that ranked ahead of Ole Miss in turnover margin had as many or more fumbles.
Many of Bo Wallace’s 17 interceptions last year were a result of decision-making. A number of factors go into this. One, Wallace needs to understand when a play is over. He got better at that last year, and you saw him throw balls away to get to the next play. Another factor in decision-making is trust in your offensive line. Sometimes that trust wasn’t rewarded.
There’s a lot to consider before pulling the trigger, and this is where Wallace would have benefited from live action in the spring.
The Schedule: Never have seven wins been celebrated like Ole Miss enjoyed a 7-6 season a year ago. On the surface some may think that silly, but anyone who watched this program in 2010 and 2011 understood the joy.
Freeze has spent the off-season trying to manage expectations. Talking points shifted from “wilderness” to “journey” on the recently concluded Rebel Road Trip.
It’s a wise approach.
While the Rebels got better last year, others will get better this year. If you stand still in the SEC you fall behind, and Arkansas and Auburn, with splashy new head coach hires, are trying hard not to do that.
Auburn, in fact, is a prime candidate to be this year’s “Ole Miss,” the team that exceeds projections and expectations. The Tigers have recruited well through the years, and many players on the roster were signed to run the Gus Malzahn offense, not the offense Gene Chizik tried to run last year.
The problem with the schedule is four out of five road games to start the year. Three of those teams (Vanderbilt, Texas and Alabama) combined for 31 wins last year, and the other is Auburn. The only hiccup in that stretch is a Week 2 home game against Southeast Missouri State.
After that stretch the Rebels don’t leave the state of Mississippi. They play six straight home games and close at Mississippi State, but that home stretch includes Texas A&M and LSU back-to-back at the beginning of the six-game stretch.
The Rebels will have to be a good road team early, or they will be climbing uphill in the quest for bowl-eligibility.
The Signing Class: This is another area for Freeze to manage expectations. A consensus top 10 group made national news for Ole Miss and has the fan base buzzing with excitement. Many newcomers will have to help in a number of areas. Freeze will have to take a long hard look his new players and decide who is truly ready to help.
Guys like Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil and the many others will have to successfully acclimate to new surroundings. Former Georgia coach Jim Donnan used to call it the “de-recruiting” process. They will need to stay focused when climbing the depth chart becomes a little harder than they were accustomed to in high school.