PARRISH ALFORD: Running backs could be Rebels’ gamechanger

OleMissLogoOXFORD – A year ago, Ole Miss had so little depth at running back that its new coach moved the previous year’s starting quarterback to fill the void behind Jeff Scott.

Randall Mackey didn’t play only running back in 2012. He also helped the Rebels at wide receiver, but the biggest thing he did was provide game experience and some tough inside running in back of the starter.

Mackey is gone, but two Hugh Freeze recruiting classes – one of them compiled in just a few month’s time after his December 2011 hiring – have made running back the Rebels’ most intriguing position.

There’s lots of depth, lots of players who performed wondrous feats in high school in freshmen Mark Dodson, Kailo Moore and Jordan Wilkins.

Depth and experience are different things.

Beyond scant playing time for sophomores I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton – both of whom showed up big late in the Compass Bowl win over Pittsburgh – there’s some wonder as to what will happen when the lights go on at Vanderbilt Stadium this Thursday.

It will still be somewhat new for Mathers and Walton, who combined for only nine rushing attempts in SEC games last year.

Make no mistake, the experience level for some of these backs is about to change.

Who, how much and in what roles remains to be seen.

The experience they do have will give Mathers and Walton and edge.

Walton has gone through all of preseason practice without injury – while Dodson and Mathers both missed time – and is the best guess for No. 2 on the depth chart.

The recent loss of Korvic Neat, further thinning the slot receiver position, could impact the running backs. One of them could end up in the slot. Walton and Moore have the skill set to make that work.

Expect Freeze to try to isolate the speedy Moore in space whether with short passes or quick pitches.

Wilkins, at 6-foot-1, 210, is the biggest of the group. That’s significant for a team that lacked force in short-yardage situations last year.

The problem at running back – a good problem – is that there won’t be enough carries to go around. Someone will redshirt.

When you hear the depth theme repeated around the Rebels it carries an asterisk for the running backs.

There are numbers, and they’re relatively healthy. There is very little experience behind Scott, but there’s exciting potential.

Hopefully for Ole Miss, that potential will quickly translate into production.

Parrish Alford (parrish.alford@ journalinc.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs at djournal.com.