Spring practice is in the books for Ole Miss, and now the countdown to the Sept. 5 season-opening showdown against Florida State is officially on.
Of course, the Rebels used the spring to figure out how to replace three guys who could be drafted in the first round of the NFL draft later this month, but there were also other key losses on the Ole Miss roster that led to some question marks for the program.
Overall, coach Hugh Freeze said he was pleased with what he saw from his team over the past month, and the best news of all is that no one went down with a major injury.
Here are 6 things we learned about Ole Miss this spring:
Ole Miss will be fine at wide receiver without Laquon Treadwell
It’s nearly impossible to replace a guy who set all sorts of school records and is the proverbial favorite to be the first receiver selected in the NFL draft, but the depth the Rebels have at wide receiver makes up for the loss in production without Treadwell.
Everyone knows that receivers Damore’ea Stringfellow and Quincy Adeboyejo as well as tight end Evan Engram can be big receiving threats in the SEC, but Ole Miss also got a good spring from redshirt freshman wide receiver Van Jefferson, who Freeze said was the most improved offensive player, and sophomore wide receiver Damarkus Lodge.
Jefferson is a solid route runner with good hands, while Lodge has the ability to make the highlight catches. And don’t forget about veterans Markell Pack and Derrick Jones, who both have shown their ability to make plays in the SEC as well.
Offensive line may be better than expected
The biggest issue for Ole Miss’ offense under Freeze is its inability to run block consistently against elite defenses.
That problem stems from poor play along the offensive line, and when you lose five major contributors, including Laremy Tunsil, you’d think the unit as a whole would take a big step in the wrong direction, but that might not be the case.
With sophomore Javon Patterson, sophomore Jordan Sims and junior Rod Taylor all proving themselves as SEC-level guards, Ole Miss has a chance to have the most consistent interior offensive line play since Freeze took over in Oxford, Miss.
The biggest concern comes at tackle. This spring, senior Jeremy Liggins and redshirt freshman Alex Givens worked at tackle, but Ole Miss will look to add true freshman Greg Little, who was the nation’s No. 1 offensive lineman in the Class of 2016, according to 247Sports Composite rankings, to the mix early on. Also, senior Robert Conyers and sophomore Sean Rawlings will both play a lot, either at center or tackle.
Quarterback play in good hands for years to come
Chad Kelly returns as Ole Miss’ quarterback, but the Rebels should be in good shape at quarterback for several years down the road.
With Kelly missing the last couple weeks of spring after having surgery to repair a sports hernia, true freshman Shea Patterson, the nation’s top-ranked pro-style quarterback in the Class of 2016, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, got extra reps with the first team.
Freeze said Patterson was the most college-ready freshman quarterback he’s seen during his time at the collegiate ranks, so there’s no denying the excitement about his future with Ole Miss.
Defensive line shouldn’t miss a beat
Despite losing Robert Nkemdiche, Woodrow Hamilton and a few other big contributors, the Ole Miss defensive line should be among the best in the SEC in 2016.
Defensive end Marquis Haynes returns as one of the league’s best pass rushers, D.J. Jones picked up where he left off at the end of 2015, and a host of young guys are stepping up at the right time.
There’s a lot of excitement surrounding sophomore defensive tackle Breeland Speaks and senior Issac Gross, who missed all of 2015 with a neck injury. Defensive end Fadol Brown, who had offseason foot surgery, will return to rotation as well.
That’s not to mention the likes of true freshman defensive tackle Benito Jones, sophomore Victor Evans and sophomore defensive tackle Ross Donelly who are among a talented crop of young playmakers.
Jury still out on the secondary
Freeze said he was pleased with the play of the safeties for Ole Miss this spring, but there’s a sense of “won’t believe it until you see it” with this unit.
The Rebels are left with junior C.J. Hampton as the only guy with a lot of experience at safety, and senior Tony Conner is coming off a major injury at the Rebels’ hybrid linebacker/safety Huskie position.
Outside of those two guys, there are a lot of young guys being relied on, and while the talent may be there, it’s hard to know how good they can be until you see them in game action.
Some stability at corner, with senior Tony Bridges and junior Kendarius Webster leading the charge, should help, but there will be some anxious moments before really feeling good about the back end of the Landsharks’ defense.
DeMarquis Gates turning into a star at linebacker
The biggest question mark for Ole Miss defensively is without a doubt the play at linebacker.
The Rebels have help on the way with graduate transfer Rommel Mageo coming from Oregon State and junior college linebacker Detric Bing-Dukes, who was a late addition to this year’s signing class.
However, junior DeMarquis Gates may be primed for a breakout season if this spring was any indication. The talent has always been there for the 6-foot-2, 217-pounder, and the light bulb came on late last season, which should put him in position to have a big year this fall.