By David Brandt/The Associated Press
OXFORD — Randall Mackey is at the top of Ole Miss’ running back depth chart.
First-year coach Hugh Freeze doesn’t mind admitting that gives him a little extra joy.
“He’s one of my favorite kids on the team,” Freeze said. “He feels like he’s got something to prove and I’m looking forward to seeing him in action.”
Mackey ascension is one of the feel-good stories during preseason camp as the Rebels prepare to face Central Arkansas on Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound senior has made an impressive transformation from quarterback to running back during the offseason, and finally appears ready to make headlines for something other than mediocre performances and suspensions.
“Running back’s been a good fit for me, it’s been really natural,” Mackey said when Ole Miss reported for preseason camp. “But I really don’t care where I get the ball. I just want to be a part of it.”
And Mackey will likely be a big part of any success or failure this rebuilt Ole Miss program will have this season. The Rebels come into the season with a tattered image — which is usually what happens when a team has endured a 14-game conference losing streak.
Mackey can relate.
He was considered an elite quarterback recruit when he came to Ole Miss after leading East Mississippi Community College to a national championship in 2009. But he redshirted in 2010 and was only average during 2011, throwing for 1,112 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions as the Rebels finished with a 2-10 record.
Those lackluster on-the-field numbers were compounded by off-the-field problems. Mackey was suspended for three games last season because of two separate issues, and was in serious danger of getting kicked off the team when Freeze took over for fired coach Houston Nutt in December.
But slowly, Mackey has rehabilitated his image and gained the trust of the new coaching staff.
“I said when I got here he could be a special player if he got his act together off the field,” Freeze said. “He seems to have done that to this point. I’m very cautiously optimistic that will continue.”
With his behavior in check, there’s little doubt Mackey can help on the field. One of the reasons he was considered such a promising quarterback prospect was his ability to run, and his instincts have translated to the backfield immediately.
Running backs coach Derrick Nix said he sees similar characteristics to former Ole Miss running back and receiver Dexter McCluster, who is now with the Kansas City Chiefs and the Rebels’ most dynamic playmaker when the program won back-to-back Cotton Bowls in 2008 and ’09.
“Dexter was a little quicker and Randall’s a little bigger, but the fact is they both can set up blocks and have that agility in the hole,” Nix said. “There are a lot of the same traits.”
Nix was also pleased that Mackey has picked up the finer points of being a running back, like fluid pass routes and pass protection. But like Freeze, Nix says it’s the attitude adjustment that is most important.
“Through the years, some things haven’t gone the way he’s wanted them to go,” Nix said. “But it’s helped him learn on his road back. He realizes what’s at stake for him.”
Mackey should have some help in the backfield. Junior Jeff Scott returns after rushing for 529 yards and six touchdowns last season. Freshmen I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton have also been impressive during the preseason and are expected to get carries against Central Arkansas.
But it’s Mackey who has shown the coaching staff the combination of talent and instinct to be one of the SEC’s best.
“I hope he’s a pleasant surprise to people,” Freeze said. “I really believe that he’s a football player — period. I thought running back might be a weakness a few months ago, but the way Randall has come along, I think that could be a real strong spot for us.”
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