By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Derrick Nix, the only holdover from the previous Ole Miss coaching staff, had a little more faith in the Hugh Freeze offense than did Hugh Freeze.
With that faith, Nix says it’s no shock that the Rebels lead the SEC in rushing a third of the way into the season. They are 11th in the country, averaging 259.8 yards a game.
“No, not at all,” says Nix, who coaches running backs. “The plan we put together, the style of offense we run … it’s built for us to be able to run the football and make plays for our running backs, our quarterbacks.”
Ole Miss has twice surpassed 300 yards in rushing, most recently last Saturday when it put up 304 yards in a 39-0 win over Tulane.
Impressive in the onslaught was the fact that the leading Ole Miss rusher, backup quarterback Barry Brunetti, had just 67 net yards.
Five players had 30 yards or more, and of 10 players to share 53 carries, only two averaged fewer than 4.5 yards per attempt.
Freeze, the architect, surveyed the landscape in the spring with an uneasy feeling, particularly with his offensive line.
“I’d have to say yes, I’m surprised. Coach (Matt) Luke has done a great job of getting the kids we have better, but we’ve not played the likes of Alabama and many others in the conference yet,” Freeze said.
SEC play begins Saturday night at No. 1 Alabama. While the Rebels are the last team to begin conference play, they do have an SEC-caliber measuring stick to draw on and were able to rush for 170 yards against Texas.
Running backs Randall Mackey scored on a 3-yard run, Jeff Scott on a 48-yard run.
“We have a lot of good running backs, Jeff Scott, a scatback, he can do just about everything. Randall Mackey, he’s played quarterback, he’s doing good, myself and I’Tavius Mathers, Nick Parker, we’ve got a pretty good depth chart,” freshman Jaylen Walton said.
Freeze announced Mackey’s move from quarterback to running back on the eve of camp. That immediately gave credible depth to a position where only Scott – last year’s leading rusher with 479 yards – returned with any measurable experience.
Freeze said in the off-season that signees I’Tavius Mathers and Walton would have opportunities to play, and they haven’t disappointed.
Mathers is averaging almost 6 yards a carry, and the Tulane game was Walton’s first without a touchdown. He’s scored on a 10-yard run, a 51-yard pass and a 100-yard kick return.
It’s Scott, though, who has become the focal point. After missing the opener with an injury, he’s become the SEC’s fifth-leading rusher with 89.3 yards a game.
“The guys we have at running back are talented. Coach Luke did a good job with us in the spring and in camp, and our scheme helps us,” offensive tackle Emmanuel McCray said. “We’re high-tempo, and we spread the defense out. That helps us a lot.”
The Rebels are hopefully for similar success against Alabama, which has given up just one rushing touchdown this season. The Crimson Tide is allowing 62.3 rushing yards a game, sixth nationally, second in the SEC.
Ole Miss is also trying to improve its ball-protection. The rushing yardage at Tulane might have been more had the Rebels not fumbled six times and lost possession three times.
Nix said the running game was one of the team’s big concerns going into the season. Once he began to see how the young guys could contribute this season, he envisioned what the run game could become.
“The young guys are not there all the way, but they’re progressing,” Nix said. “This has not been a shock so far. We expect it every time we go out on the field.”