A few thoughts from the week …
Tee Shepard: While the official announcement drug on for several days it seemed early headed toward a season-ending injury. You seek second and third opinions when the first one isn’t very good. Hugh Freeze, understandably, sought as much information as possible to see if Shepard could play this year. Freeze calls Shepard “arguably our best cover corner.” At this stage of Shepard’s career it’s hard to really know what the Rebels have lost because he hasn’t been on the field. Clearly they’ve lost a skilled athlete who could help. Hopefully, for the Rebels and for himself, he’ll recover and help next year.
Issac Gross: We were told mid-week that Gross had returned to practice, but that was just long enough for the neck to “flare up” again. The last time we were around he was out of action again. This has lingered for a while. Hopefully, as Freeze says the training staff believes, rest is all that will be required for Gross to be ready to play. Gross’ size, 240 pounds he told me in the summer, is going to have him prone to injury with the position (D line) that he plays. That same size gives him the quickness that makes him so difficult to block and an asset for Ole Miss. I think that’s especially true this year if he’s healthy and has Robert Nkemdiche attracting the attention that I think Nkemdiche will attract.
Carlos Davis: Davis (ACL) probably wasn’t going to get on the field at corner, but he was definitely going to get on the field on special teams. I suspect Freeze will find a capable punt returner from the group of Trae Elston, Anthony Alford and Markell Pack. That’s an area the Rebels definitely need to improve. But Davis was unique as a gunner, getting down field and being disruptive in punt coverage. He’ll be missed.
Injuries overall: Freeze has praised his team’s depth, and it is indeed much deeper than his first two teams. But depth is best when you don’t have to use it. It’s great to have quality back-ups, but there are players on this team whose loss would be glaring. It’s possible Shepard is one of those players, but at this point you just don’t know. I’ll tell you some who are: Bo Wallace, Laquon Treadwell, Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, C.J. Johnson, Cody Prewitt. Lose any of those guys, and it’s a different Ole Miss team. Depth is there, and the Rebels would be better off than in 2012 or 2013, but there are some guys that have to be healthy if this team is to meet the expectations it has.
Young Quarterbacks: Sounds like Ryan Buchanan has taken a step ahead in the race for No. 2. We’ve not seen these guys live much at all, but Freeze says Buchanan is ahead in the passing game and that DeVante Kincade needs to improve his decision-making process. I’ve thought from the beginning that Buchanan would be the guy if suddenly the Rebels needed a long-term fix behind center. Kincade’s mobility is something this team needs, but the offense is at its best when a quarterback stands in the pocket, makes correct reads and delivers the ball on time. Sounds like Buchanan is doing that a little better right now. That said, I still think you see both if a long-term fix is necessary. There would be plays scripted to Kincade’s strengths, but I think the majority of snaps would go to Buchanan. My guess. Another guess. There will be a short-term role behind Wallace. Freeze likes to throw a change-up with the Wildcat formation, and he’ll do that this season. That could be Kincade, but I’m thinking it’s Anthony Alford first, and I think you’ll see Jeremy Liggins in a short-yardage situation. Haven’t seen much of that in open viewing this month. They’ve been getting Liggins ready at tight end, but they invested a lot of time with Liggins as a short-yardage QB in the spring.
Running Backs: I’m guessing that three play, and it’s I’Tavius Mathers, Jaylen Walton and Akeem Judd. I think all six are capable. The difference, as Mark Dodson points out, will be pass blocking. Mathers and Walton are the experienced backs, and there’s no need to sit them down unless one of the other four proves to be clearly a cut above. Haven’t seen or heard that yet. Judd at 220 pounds gives Freeze the power runner he hasn’t had in his first two seasons. He gives that something different, and that’s what you have to do in a six-way competition.
Offensive Line: I’m think Ben Still is the starting center, Robert Conyers the runner-up. Conyers will sub in at either tackle. He’ll sub in at center too, but center, under Evan Swindall for three years, wasn’t a place that OL coach Matt Luke liked to sub too much. He says that might be different now, but it’s hard to mess around with those shotgun snaps when you’ve got some consistency, and Still has been consistent with the snaps. I’m thinking Fahn Cooper becomes a top sub at guard.
Wide Receivers: It’s been hard to get a read on this group because of the limited live viewing periods. It’s concerning that Freeze continues to challenge Quincy Adeboyejo to be more consistent in catching the football. All the athleticism in the world won’t mean much to a receiver if the coach doesn’t have confidence in him to catch the ball. I think Treadwell will be as good as advertised, and Vince Sanders will make plays. Adeboyejo is the wild card that can take the group of starters from pretty good to really good. The jury is still out on the back-ups. Freeze praised Dayall Harris early on. It seemed that Harris got off to a faster start than Markell Pack, but he likes Pack enough to have him part of the punt returner competition. Sounds like Pack is catching the ball. Sammie Epps is a potential matchup advantage if he catches the ball consistently. In the quest for depth keep an eye out for some program veterans — Cody Core and Quintavius Burdette — especially early on. Collins Moore is still out, and it will be interesting to see where he fits in with reps when he’s back.