By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – While it looks like a lot of quality players jumbled together, finding separation among the Ole Miss running backs may eventually be as easy as A, B, C.
Because the difference-maker may ultimately be B-L-O-C-K.
“We all have to block and know our assignments whether we fit into the A gap, B gap or C. We have to know our role as a blocking back,” says junior Jaylen Walton, who gets no pass on blocking just because he’s 5-foot-8 and 166 pounds.
Walton and I’Tavius Mathers were productive last year as sophomores and therefore have an experience edge that will likely lead to them getting the first snaps this season.
That advantage hasn’t allowed them to coast through camp, however.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze has named no starter at tailback and a talented group of six players – many with similar skill sets – has pushed one another through the competition.
Attrition only removed Jeff Scott from the 2013 group, and Scott was less a factor by the end of the season.
Mathers and Walton as a tailback duo combined for 1,086 yards and nine touchdowns, likely All-SEC numbers had they come from one player.
Mathers led the team with 563 rushing yards, and Walton tied with Bo Wallace for the team lead in rushing touchdowns with six.
The Rebels rushed for 190 yards a game last year but were sketchy in short yardage. They were 10th in the SEC in third-down conversions, ninth in fourth-down conversions.
That’s where Akeem Judd is expected to help. At 6-0 and 220, he’s got 22 pounds on Mark Dodson, who also played last year as a freshman, and 30 pounds on Mathers.
“Out of all of us, Akeem is the bruiser, the hard-nosed runner,” Walton said.
That distinction will likely get Judd an early opportunity, but the number of reps for a running back may be directly proportional to his blocking ability.
“I think picking up the blitz will be the No. 1 thing. Can you stand your ground and know the blitz package?” Dodson said.
With Scott, Mathers and Walton ahead of him, Dodson (5-10, 198) played last year but not much.
He expects a bigger role this season because of the work he’s putting in now.
While Judd’s size and power set him apart, Dodson is hoping his study habits will be his advantage.
“I study a lot. I study different fronts and what my offensive line does, whose got who and where to be at certain times,” he said. “I study the different types of blitzes so when (coach Derrick Nix) asks a question I don’t have to tell him a number that’s coming. I can tell him, ‘Oh, it’s a field corner or a boundary corner.’ Things like that.”
Eugene Brazley, who compares with Walton in his shiftiness, and Jordan Wilkins, a smaller version of Judd, are also competing for playing time. Both are redshirt freshmen.
There are a lot of backs with a lot to offer.
Make it happen
Because of that depth their roles as individuals may eventually depend more on what they do without the ball than with it.
“We feel like it’s going to be one of the deepest backfields in a while to hit the university,” Dodson said. “We know that when we’re in there we’ve got to make something happen because there’s another man that’s got the same talent as us. We’re all just out there doing what we can and trying to take advantage of every opportunity.”