After back-to-back winning seasons, including victories in two bowl games, the Ole Miss Rebels football program appears to be on the upswing as head coach Hugh Freeze enters his third season at the stern wheel.
With back-to-back stellar recruiting classes, including a Top Five finish in 2013 to go along with the winning seasons and bowl victories, fans in Rebel nation are seeking higher expectations--I.E. winning the SEC Western Division outright. Ole Miss and LSU tied for it in 2003 with LSU, who went on to win the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) national title.
With these serving as a backdrop, here are five questions for Ole Miss football as the 2014 season draws near.
Question 1: How will the team respond to the off-the field distractions which resulted in the suspension of Denzel Nkemdiche?
Nkemdiche, a junior linebacker, along with Channing Ward and others were involved in various off-the-field incidents, resulting in Nkemdiche being suspended from spring practice and from the season opener Aug. 28 at the Georgia Dome in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic against Boise State. According to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger newspaper, he has been cleared by coach Freeze to work out with the team, but he will still be suspended for the Boise State game.
No doubt players like Serderius Bryant and company will have to “man up” and step up to the task that is before them and maintain solid, aggressive play, especially against the Broncos. No question that Denzel, the older brother of Robert, the numero uno high school recruit in 2013, and his contributions to the defense will be missed against BSU. Still, it will be up to Bryant and others to make their mark.
Question 2: Will the “fantastic freshmen” of 2013 become “super sophomores” in 2014?
The aforementioned Robert Nkemdiche, along with wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil, tight end Evan Engram, et al. made more than just a splash in 2013, Treadwell was SEC Freshman of the Year, and Nkemdiche, Tunsil and others received some hardware at season’s end. Treadwell, Tony Connor, a safety, and Tunsil were all named to the Freshmen All-American team by The Sporting News.
There are many media outlets looking at Treadwell as a big time star in the making in the SEC, one who will be looked on to fill in for the now departed Donte Moncrief.
Indulge me for sounding like a cliché, or that I just completed a class in Coach Speak 101, but as long as they keep everything in front of them, keep it in proper perspective, stay away from serious injuries, they will not fall prey to a sophomore slump.
Question 3: Who will be the backup QB behind Bo Wallace?
Wallace, who played in all contests in spite of working to get over off-season shoulder surgery, will have competition aplenty for the number two spot going into fall practice, and the season opener in Atlanta against Boise St. on Aug. 28.
Among the candidates include red shirt freshmen Devonte Kincade and Ryan Buchanan. Both saw action in the April 5 Grove Bowl--the Rebels’ spring game--and each put up respectable numbers. Kincade was 5-of-8 for 57 yards, while Buchanan finished 6-of-10 for 100 yards. Neither threw an interception. Wallace finished 10-of-21 for 152 yards. He threw no touchdowns, but didn’t commit a single turnover.
Jeremy Liggins, a former standout at nearby Lafayette County High School, saw some playing time at quarterback, rushing for 21 yards. But he’s over 300 pounds, and the coaching staff sees him mostly as a tight end, or playing on defense. He could be an option for short yardage situations. Kendrick Doss, an early enrollee from Florence, Ala., also saw playing time in the Grove Bowl.
Question 4: How did spring drills go for some players who switched positions from last year?
Spring practice is a time of experimenting, trying out some things to see what may and may not work when fall practice rolls around. Many of these position changes are to help add depth to areas in need. Channing Ward, a junior, who was a defensive end in 2013, saw a fair share of work at tight end. Sophomore Kailo Moore, who was a running back last season, has been moved to cornerback.
Deterrian Shackelford--formerly known as D.T.-- has been moved from defensive end to “Mike” linebacker. Shackelford was named the winner of the Chucky Mullins Courage Award prior to the spring game. He has been granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after missing the 2011 and 2012 seasons with injuries. Junior Chief Brown has been moved from safety to the husky spot--a hybrid position combining a safety and linebacker.
According to published reports during the spring practice sessions and following the Grove Bowl, Freeze and his staff liked what they saw from the changes that were made.
Question 5: After seasons of 7-6 and 8-5, what’s next for Ole Miss in 2014?
In real estate, the catch word is location, location, location. In college football, especially in the vaunted, rugged SEC, it is scheduling, scheduling, scheduling. After Boise State, the Rebels travel to Vanderbilt, where they came away with a come-from-behind 39-35 win in 2013. They will also play Alabama and Auburn at home, they travel to Baton Rouge, as well as College Station for the first time since 1975, where they will face a Texas A&M squad minus “Johnny Football.” Mississippi State comes to Oxford for the annual “Battle of the Golden Egg.”
There will also be games against Louisiana Lafayette and Presbyterian, and Memphis. They are back on the Ole Miss schedule for the first time since 2009. Tennessee, who is making a resurgence under second-year head coach Butch Jones, also appears on the schedule replacing Missouri. There will also be trip to Arkansas, who is rebuilding. Ole Miss has two straight wins against the Razorbacks.
Naturally, it would be realistic to say Ole Miss could finish 8-4. They could do that, or could finish higher.
Again, it depends on how the schedule plays out, injuries kept to a minimum, and how focused the players are as to how the Rebels will fare in year three of the Hugh Freeze coaching regime.