PARRISH ALFORD: Rebels look to live up to the hype

PARRISH ALFORD

PARRISH ALFORD

OXFORD

In eight days, Ole Miss will begin a football season with its highest expectations since 2009.

The Rebels were ranked No. 8 at the start then, and while the end result was Houston Nutt’s second-straight Cotton Bowl victory, a 4-4 SEC finish left the feeling that something was missing.

Now the preseason propaganda machine has Ole Miss inside the top 20 in both major polls.

So with the camp part of preseason closed and all eyes ahead to next Thursday night’s Atlanta opener against Boise State, are the Rebels ready for some football?

The answer is definitely maybe.

Hugh Freeze and every other coach can point to topics he’d like to cover more or positions that need more polish.

Here’s what it looks like to me.

What looks really good: The running backs can be special, with none of them earning All-SEC honors because of how the touches will be distributed among the group.

I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton have already produced at this level and are now experienced juniors. There are power options in Jordan Wilkins and Akeem Judd that really weren’t there the last two years.

Defensively, there is talent and athleticism at most positions, but Robert Nkemdiche and Cody Prewitt could set this group a part.

If Nkemdiche demands the attention at tackle that is expected, it can only make things easier for the end and nose tackle next to him.

That’s just Nkemdiche helping others. He’ll make his own plays, too.

Prewitt, a returning All-American, led the SEC and interceptions and is a fierce hitter.

The coming of age of these guys plus the health of end C.J. Johnson gives this defense exciting potential.

What looks kind of iffy: There are questions on the offensive line. While Laremy Tunsil has All-America potential at left tackle it’s a concern that camp has basically concluded with no starting center named.

There’s a lot of experience flanking the center at each guard. Left guard Aaron Morris was preseason All-SEC last year but tore an ACL in the season opener. Can he regain the form that was expected for him a year ago? If so, he and Justin Bell can take a lot of heat off either Ben Still or Robert Conyers at center.

At right tackle, junior college transfer Fahn Cooper looks the part but lacks the experience. He may set the woods a fire in a week. We’ll see.

The wild cards: Denzel Nkemdiche will miss the Boise game due to suspension. He’s expected back for Week 2, and if he returns to his 2012 form he will make a big impact. That Denzel was hungry and eager to prove he belonged. Plagued by injuries a year ago, his production dropped. Then his off-season decisions suggested contentment with the status quo.

Quincy Adeboyejo is a gifted athlete that Freeze has tried to praise and challenge at the same time this month. If Adeboyejo can consistently catch the football his skill set will lift the Rebels’ receivers to a higher plane.

Then, the camp of junior Cody Core should help answer depth questions at the position.

Parrish Alford (parrish.alford@journalinc.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. Read his blog at InsideOleMissSports.com.