Steele sees big things for Rebels in ’14
High expectations for the Ole Miss Rebels don’t just reside with the fan base. Phil Steele, one of the nation’s leading college football experts, also believes that the Rebels can achieve double-digit wins this year thanks to a loaded roster of what he calls “Very Highly Touted” players.
“I’m going to compare it to 2009 when Ole Miss entered the season No. 8 in the AP poll and ended up with a little bit of a disappointing year, losing four games,” Steele said. “I look at the 2009 roster, and that had nowhere near the amount of what I call ‘VHTs’ that this 2014 roster has.
When you look at the job Hugh Freeze has been doing, this roster is loaded with VHTs and almost comparable to an Alabama or LSU.”
Steele’s annual college football magazine is out on newsstands across the country, and he has the Rebels ranked No. 16 on his Top 40 countdown. The Rebels are ranked behind Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the rugged SEC West, but Steele had Ole Miss as a favorite in 10 of its 12 games this year.
“They came up just short against Texas A&M last year and beat Texas on the road, and I thought that was an outstanding win,” Steele said. “This is a veteran squad with 15 returning starters. Bo Wallace is back at quarterback, and I expect big-time results out of him. Last year, he had an 18-10 (touchdown-to-interception) ratio, and I think he can improve on that. The running back corps is extremely deep. There are no household names, nobody that anybody around the country knows about, but I like the talent. The wide receivers, with Laquon Treadwell and Markell Pack, are very good and, defensively, I think that’s where they’re going to make their biggest statement.”
Ole Miss is strongest on the defensive side of the ball, and Steele has all the units ranked pretty high. He has the defensive line as the 12th best group in the nation. The linebackers are ranked third best in the nation, while the defensive backs are ranked 26th overall.
“I think they have a potential top 10 defense this year,” Steele said. “Add those factors together, along with the fact that they get Alabama and Auburn at home. Yes, they have to play LSU on the road, but I can see them making a major impact and getting up to that double-digit win total.
After last year, if you would have asked me does Missouri or Auburn have a chance of winning the SEC, I would put that on the slim list. Ole Miss is a completely different animal. They are much higher up in my rankings compared to Missouri and Auburn from last year.”
Steele likes Wallace’s mobility and the fact that he has two years of experience starting under his belt.
“He can run the football, and he had over 500 gross yards rushing. He’s also capable of passing,” Steele said. “He completed 65 percent of his passes, and he had that 18-10 ratio. He’s 6’4”, 203 pounds, mobile and (has) a good arm. What’s not to like about him? The thing that you’re really looking at is can he improve the ratio, which he has struggled a little at times. He had five interceptions the last three games last year, so if he continues to improve in that category, with the weapons he has surrounding him at running back and receiver, I think it’s a very potent offense.”
The Rebels may not have a Deuce McAllister-type back to carry the ball, but Steele feels good about the group, led by I’Tavius Mathers, and what they can do overall.
“Mathers was of course the star of the spring game with over 100 yards on just four carries,” Steele said. “He is a guy that can hurt you out of the backfield. He’s got decent size. He’s not a 225-pound guy, but he’s hard to tackle, and he’s an every-down type of back. He’s a decent pass protector. He’s a good receiver and I think he’s really coming into his own this year.”
When it came time to rate the linebackers, Steele gave a high grade due to 1) Serderius Bryant’s 78 tackles in 2013 and 2) sophomore Tony Conner being considered a part of the group.
“Bryant was second team All-SEC last year and (Denzel) Nkemdiche is listed as second or third team right now, and that’s nice to have,” Steele said. “(Deterrian) Shackleford: let’s hope he comes back and can have a big season as a senior. Then you add Christian Russell, a JUCO, who was in for the spring. At 235 pounds, he’s going to be solid in the middle. Tony Conner at the Husky, it’s a unit that’s very deep and one of the most experienced in the country. When you add up their totals returning from the linebacking corps, they’re right at the top of the country. I like the talent level, they’ve got good size, good speed.”
If there is an area on either side of the ball that has the most question marks heading into the season, it’s along the offensive line. Steele pointed out that the career starts among the linemen returning has dropped to 61 games.
“Last year, the offensive line trimmed the sack total to 27 so I saw some improvement there, and they improved the yards per carry up to 4.7,” Steele said. “(Laremy) Tunsil had surgery after 2013 and was limited this spring, and I think he’ll be just fine at left tackle. He has room to build on. When you come in as a true freshman and play like he did, I think they’re in good shape there. I look for a JUCO in Fahn Cooper to possibly take over that right tackle spot. Justin Bell is back at right guard. I think it is that one question mark when you look at the rest of the team and the strengths, besides special teams. I would throw that in as well.”
Ole Miss lost kicker Andrew Ritter and punter Tyler Campbell after last season, and Steele felt like Campbell, who netted 37.7 yards per punt, was a big loss.
“You also lose the top two punt returners, and while the kick returners are back, that wasn’t the strength of the special teams,” Steele said. “There is only one unit at Ole Miss that doesn’t rank in my magazine, and that’s the special teams. That would probably be my biggest concern coming into the season. It’s one of the trickiest parts of the game, and nobody really pays attention to it, but you notice if it doesn’t work out well. With that said, the possible punter is (true freshman) Gary Wunderlich, who was my No. 6-rated punter coming out of high school. Again, the VHTs come in and you also have Will Gleeson. Both of those guys have pretty big legs, so the potential is there for both kicker and punter, but it is untested at this point.”