By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Bowl practice at Ole Miss this week is not about the Rebels’ Jan. 5 opponent, Pittsburgh, but is about the Rebels themselves.
That inward focus is beneficial for the younger players, a group that includes two from Northeast Mississippi.
The signing of defensive end Channing Ward, of Aberdeen, was celebrated by the fan base, but Ward’s late clearance by the NCAA caused him to miss August camp, another time on the calendar when coaches can spend more time with newcomers.
Former Itawamba AHS quarterback Maikhail Miller was signed by Houston Nutt’s staff but did not join the football program until January.
Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze says Miller is a far different player now.
“He has a much better understanding now than he did, particularly for the amount of reps he’s gotten. I think he’s improved drastically.”
Miller has been effective moving the team in the tempo offense this week.
He appeared in two games this season and rushed for 23 yards on six carries. He did not attempt a pass.
Freeze’s decision to hold starting quarterback Bo Wallace out of most drills until after the Christmas break has is allowing Miller to get more reps than he would have otherwise.
Development for Ward has been good but not off the charts. At 6-foot-4, 256 pounds, Ward’s physical gifts are not in question.
“He’s got grown-man strength,” defensive line coach Chris Kiffin said. “If he puts his hands on you, you’re going to feel it.”
That strength has been enough to overcome learning time lost in August.
Ward has gotten a few plays here and there, his most playing time coming at LSU when C.J. Johnson, one of the starters, was held out.
Ward has done OK but hasn’t had the “wow” factor that he did at Aberdeen. He has appeared in 11 games with 17 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. He was impressive in giving chase against Texas wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, an Olympic long jumper. Ward got a bit of a late start. He didn’t catch Goodwin, but he didn’t lose ground.
“The technique and speed of this game are a little different than Aberdeen, Miss.,” Kiffin said. “Obviously, his game experience has been crucial, but with trying to make sure we’re putting our best product on the field he hasn’t been getting a lot of reps, probably 10-15 plays a game.”
The game experience has been important, but Kiffin expects Ward to make his biggest jump in the spring.
“Spring ball is going to be his biggest progression. He’s going to have a good summer, get stronger, faster and all that stuff, but spring ball, the football side of it, is going to be huge for him. I think we’ll really see a turn next fall camp.”