Young Rebels fighting for spot in backfield

By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – When Ole Miss starting running back Jeff Scott was injured in the BBVA Compass Bowl, the first call went to Jaylen Walton.
Score one for Walton.
I’Tavius Mathers got his chance later and had the game’s longest play with a 62-yard touchdown run.
Score one for Mathers.
The fact is, there is an opening for more playing time for someone. Scott is back after rushing for 846 yards last season, but Randall Mackey is not, and a door is open for someone to get on the field for Ole Miss and try to have production like Mackey, who had 691 combined rushing and receiving yards a year ago.
“We compete every day,” Walton said. “All of us know we have a chance of doing something big with the ball.”
Both Mathers and Walton had big numbers in the bowl game. Walton rushed for 56 yards on 10 carries.
Known already for his footwork and cutting ability he bounced off a few Pittsburgh tacklers as well.
In addition to his long run, Mathers averaged almost 7 yards on his other five carries.
While there are others in the mix – including freshman Mark Dodson, an early enrollee, who was Tennessee’s Gatorade Player of the Year last year – Mathers and Walton are the odds-on favorites to move up in the Rebels’ running back picture.
“I’Tavius is gaining weight. He’s becoming a more physical back. He’s got a burst too. Jaylen’s got that start and stop and has really good vision,” Freeze said.
“I think we’ve got two good ones for the future. I don’t think we missed on either of them in recruiting.”
Back to work
The Rebels are back on the practice field this morning.
While the young running backs have done some good things as spring drills continue, Freeze has judged his passing game to be largely inconsistent.
Starting quarterback Bo Wallace is being held out of contact as he recovers from off-season shoulder surgery.
Senior Barry Brunetti and sophomore Maikhail Miller – the former Itawamba AHS star – have divided the repetitions.
“We’re just struggling to throw and catch balls, to protect,” Freeze said.
Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack is installing more of his package, and that has had an impact on the offense, Freeze said.
Through the ups and downs he’s seen enough to be impressed with Miller.
“He’s got some good tools. His arm strength is as good as you want. He’s just inconsistent. He’s still a young kid, and we’ve got to keep coaching him,” Freeze said.
Two four-star quarterback signees will join the roster in August.
By then Mathers and Walton expect to be in farther along. Both feel like they’re building on their bowl-game performances.
“The bowl game put me ahead for spring, to know what I’m doing and understand the offense better,” Mathers said.
Walton believes attention to detail is what has helped him progress.
“When you get your shot you’ve got to make the best of it. I try to do that every time touch the ball. I try to block correctly, pick up on assignments. All the little things, I try to do them right,” he said.
parrish.alford@journalinc.com