This is the first part in a series that looks at the Ole Miss football team, position by position.
By John Davis, Oxford Citizen
Derrick Nix, the running backs coach for the Rebels, had a lot of depth to work with prior to the 2014 season.
Heading into the start of summer drills a year ago, Nix had six backs, and with two, Jaylen Walton and I’Tavius Mathers, having garnered significant playing time.
This summer, Nix has just as many bodies, but the difference is he has a true feature back in Walton, who has now played three years, and some larger framed backs who add a different dimension to the mix than the shifty Memphis native does.
While Nix thought it was a little too early to know how consistent each of the backs could be, whichever player carries the ball better will be the one that gets the touches down the stretch.
“I’ve always believed that whatever guy gets a hot hand, he carries the torch and finishes it off for us,” Nix said. “Every week is basically an open competition. We’re just looking for a guy that continue to be consistent and can master our running game, passing game and protections. We want somebody that can get us the tough yards, and of course somebody that has the ability to hit us the home run.”
In a perfect world, Akeem Judd would like to check all those boxes off for Nix. A year after arriving in Oxford, Judd is finally ready to hit the field, gain some yards and score some touchdowns. Judd, who played at Georgia Military College and chose Ole Miss over N.C. State, felt like a redshirt season really suited him.
“I needed that year. A lot of people thought it was because of my toe, but it was fine,” Judd said. “It was because the coaches felt it would be a great opportunity for me to have two extra years instead of wasting a year and not playing that much. I was 230 (pounds) last year going into camp and now I’m 220 solid. In the spring, I was about 225, so I’m down a little and I feel great. I feel like I can still do the things I did when I was 230, but now, I’m a little quicker.”
A year on the bench not only allowed Judd to fully heal his toe, but Nix felt like he was really able to learn the offense.
“Right now he would be a senior, getting ready to play his last year, so sitting out really helped him learn what we’re doing schematically a lot more,” Nix said. “It gave him a chance to get his body back to where he needed it to. He really was nursing that toe injury when he got here. It was good to get his body streamlined, and to go through a full year with Coach (Paul) Jackson in the weight room. He never was a bad looking kid, but it’s all good weight now. His body fat is lower and now he looks like a true SEC running back. And he still has two seasons to play.”
Ole Miss fans have been vocal about seeing a bigger back in the lineup. Judd’s heard that as well, but added that injuries to the offensive line contributed to a running attack that struggled in some key games.
“I feel like from the outside looking in, that’s what you can think, but we had a lot of trouble on the line last year,” Judd said. “Jaylen is a great runner. I think we have enough depth now but last year we had a couple of injuries. That’s still no excuse. This year, as a running back group, everybody had a great attitude heading into summer workouts. Everybody has a new attitude about them. Coach Nix and Coach (Hugh) Freeze tell us to go out and do your best everyday. I took it upon myself that whatever role I have, I just have to embrace it and help my team get to a national championship.”
Nix said that he wasn’t hung up on the size, saying the two biggest thing for a back are speed, and quickness.
“You want someone who is fast through the hole when it’s there and get into a one-on-one position in order to make us a big play,” Nix said. “Of course you have to be able to get the tough yards and to pass protect. And catch out of the backfield. But if you can’t run, you can’t play the position in this league. You have to be get around linebackers and defensive backs in this league. They all have enough speed to my liking. Of course the bigger you get, you might lose a step, but I think we have enough guys that can do both.”
Leading the way
Walton led the Rebels on the ground with 586 yards and five touchdowns. He has 1,227 yards during his career, and 12 touchdowns overall.
Jordan Wilkins, who will be a sophomore in 2015, had the best average per carry (6.9) on the team in 2014. He finished with 361 yards. Eugene Brazley, Judd’s roommate, is another candidate to see playing time. He appeared in five games, garnering 128 yards on 26 carries.
“Eugene is a good dude. He and I have been training hard,” Judd said. “He probably has the best cuts out of all of us. Once he gets more into the system, I think he’s going to be one of those break-out type players.”
Former Lafayette High standout DK Buford was switched to running back, his position in high school, from defense just before the start of summer workouts. He scored 43 touchdowns his last three years as a Commodore, and has experience catching the ball out of the backfield serving as slot receiver, at times, at LHS.