By David Brandt/The Associated Press
OXFORD – There aren’t many safe starting jobs at the Ole Miss preseason camp.
First-year coach Hugh Freeze certainly appreciates the competition. He’s just not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.
The Ole Miss football roster is in various stages of disarray after two disastrous seasons. Freeze is confident he can rebuild the team’s depth after a few years of recruiting thanks to his connections around the region, but that’s not going to help this season.
So the past two weeks have been spent looking for the current players who can meet the demands of playing in the Southeastern Conference.
Some days the search goes better than others.
During Saturday’s scrimmage at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, the offense looked like it had made some progress. The defense struggled. Few concrete discoveries were made as the Rebels’ opener on Sept. 1 against Central Arkansas rapidly approaches.
“It’s hard to tell,” Freeze said. “But we’ll find out soon.”
There were some bright spots on Saturday — particularly at running back. Freeze says freshmen I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton will help the team immediately. Mathers rushed for 100 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries. Senior Randall Mackey — a converted quarterback who is a likely starter — rushed for 45 yards on four carries in a limited role while the freshmen got extended playing time.
“I’m crazy about our two young backs,” Freeze said. “I think Jaylen and I’Tavius are phenomenal kids and competitors. They haven’t missed a snap during camp and they’ve been hit and beat on. They bounce back up after every hit.”
Quarterback Bo Wallace completed 13 of 26 passes for 85 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He also rushed for a touchdown. The junior college All-American from East Mississippi Community College has grasped the offense quickly and is competing with junior Barry Brunetti for the starting job.
Sophomore receiver Donte Moncrief caught five passes for 39 yards, including a touchdown.
“I see a lot of weapons everywhere,” Moncrief said. “Mackey’s going to tote the ball really well and Bo can put the ball where he wants to.”
But for every glimpse of optimism, there are reasons to doubt that this team can have a big turnaround after last year’s 2-10 record. The Ole Miss defense was the worst in the SEC in 2011, giving up more than 32 points per game, and struggled again on Saturday.
Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack showed his displeasure by pushing the defense through 15 minutes of sprints after the scrimmage.
“I didn’t think we played hard,” Wommack said. “I told them that they’re on scholarship — at least most of them are — and they need to earn it. They need to go full speed and effort and we’ve got to have 11 guys who can do that, and I didn’t see that today.”
Part of the problem is the defense has been hit with a rash of injuries, particularly in the secondary. Wommack said he hopes to get starting safety Charles Sawyer (quadriceps) and cornerback Wesley Pendleton (knee) back before the first game on Sept. 1 against Central Arkansas.
The Rebels did get a lift on Friday when incoming freshman Channing Ward was deemed eligible by the NCAA Clearinghouse. The 6-foot-5, 270-pound Ward was one of the program’s top recruits and is expected to help immediately on the defensive line.
But Freeze won’t be sure about Ward’s ability to help until he goes through a few practices next week. Like everything else the past two weeks, the learning curve will likely be steep.
“It’s been a process,” Freeze said. “We’re continuing to get better.”
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: @davidbrandtAP