By John Davis, Oxford Citizen
This is the third in a 12-part series that breaks down the Ole Miss Rebels’ football opponents in 2015.
Alabama running back Kenyan Drake didn’t enjoy his trip to Oxford last season. Outside of the fact that the Crimson Tide were defeated by the Rebels 23-17, Drake was lost for the remainder of the 2014 campaign, injured after making a catch in the first half.
The broken leg he suffered inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium has now healed. Drake’s focus is on the immediate future, the 2015 season, and not on the past.
On an offensive roster that doesn’t lack talent but experience as a whole, Drake’s ability to run the ball, and then shift out to catch the ball like a receiver, is invaluable to offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
Drake was on pace to have a fantastic season in 2014. Amari Cooper ended up gaining all the glory in Kiffin’s system, especially after Drake was lost. In a win over Florida, Drake caught a pass on the first play from scrimmage and turned it into an 87-yard touchdown that sent the crowd at Bryant-Denny Stadium into a frenzy.
“I was a little nervous before that call. It was a play, in a situation, that we prepared for the week prior before the game,” Drake said during SEC Media Days. “We put a lot into the planning of every specific play against every opponent we have. When a running back is lined up wide, they tend to have a linebacker on them and in that specific situation, Coach Kiffin saw that as an opportunity to put me out there. We executed a slant and go to perfection.”
Those kinds of big plays is what Alabama will need more of with Cooper gone from the equation. Cooper caught 124 passes for 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns last season, easily winning the Bilentikoff Award as the nation’s top wideout. Alabama has a new quarterback to break in, and several new offensive linemen to get ready during summer drills. Drake, and fellow running back Derrick Henry, who finished with 990 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, are the ones that are expected to help keep the offense going.
“I just up for being in the best position to help my team win,” Drake said. “Whether that’s at running back, wide receiver, special teams, I’m try to take on a team-player role and put myself in the best position to where the coaches can trust me to execute the plays that they want me to do.”
Ryan Kelly is one of the lone returning starters on the offensive line as the Crimson Tide’s starting center. Ole Miss is set to play at Alabama in Week 3, in a game that will be televised on ESPN in prime time.
Kelly felt like losing to the Rebels last season made the Crimson Tide better. That, and the close 14-13 win the very next week earned against Arkansas.
“I think that was the turning point for what we did as a team. I wasn’t there because I got hurt, but things weren’t going great and even though we won by one, we came together as a team,” Kelly said. “I think since then, looking back, we were so much closer than we were before that. I think some of the closest things for a team, for people, are when things aren’t going right. When things are going bad, you figure out who you have to your right and to your left. That really tested us and we came back stronger as a team from that.”
It’s no secret that the Crimson Tide have been one of the best defensive teams. Last year they finished right behind Ole Miss in points allowed, and they return seven starters off a very good unit. Three were named to the preseason All-SEC squad as members of the first team, while three more were placed on the second and third teams combined.
Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland, who was second on the team with 95 tackles last year, said there is better focus from the team this year compared to the end of the season when the Crimson Tide lost to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
“I think when you get used to winning as much as we have, some guys lose focus on what it took to get there,” Ragland said. “We’re going to have more respect, more respect for our opponents this year because anybody can sneak up and beat you.”
As for how good the front seven can be this season, Ragland said only time will tell if this year’s group really is the best.
“It’s all about starting right in fall camp and building that great chemistry that we need,” Ragland said. “I think the secondary is going to be good overall this year. We have a bunch of guys that are going to be together. You can see it in the locker room.”
JK Scott, who averaged 48 yards per punt last season, is one of three specialists back for the Crimson Tide. Adam Griffith is back to handle the kicking duties, while Cyrus Jones is the likely candidate to take over the full-time role as kick and punt returner with Christion Jones departed.
Alabama takes on Wisconsin in Dallas, Texas in the season opener before hosting Middle Tennessee State in the home opener the week before the Rebels visit.