Hugh Freeze doesn’t often openly discuss the absences of running backs Jordan Wilkins and Eric Swinney.
But when the Ole Miss coach has some time along, it’s hard not to ponder the possibility of if the duo was healthy.
“I’ll tell you when I sit alone and think about some of the kids we lost that I think are difference makers,” Freeze said on Wednesday’s SEC teleconference. “Beginning the year without Jordan Wilkins, without Eric Swinney after one carry. Those are two guys that we certainly thought were going to be two really, really power running backs for us. It certainly has hurt.”
The Rebels entered 2016 with a host of depth at the running back position, but that quickly dissipated. Wilkins was ruled academically ineligible for the entire season, and Swinney suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of Ole Miss’ Week 1 loss to Florida State.
Ole Miss is now forced to lean on senior Akeem Judd and junior Eugene Brazley, who have combined for 591 yards and six touchdowns. Quarterback Chad Kelly is the Rebels’ second-leading rusher, as Ole Miss ranks as the SEC’s No. 13 rushing offense while averaging just 148.86 yards per game.
The ability to rush the ball in Ole Miss’ spread offense is critical to give defenses another look, but the Rebels have struggled to do so this season, averaging 4.45 yards per carry.
Both Wilkins and Swinney would have provided a nice power rushing option — something the Rebels have been sorely lacking this season.
“You have to have a guy that can get you three yards,” Freeze said.
The Rebels will try to bounce back from a 38-21 loss against LSU last week with Auburn on the schedule in Week 9. The Tigers have the SEC’s fifth-best rushing defense, giving up an average of 129.71 yards per game.
“That’s our challenge this week. To find a way to compete with an extremely good and talented and well-coached team like Auburn,” Freeze said. “We have been dealing with a lot of injuries that has certainly caused to have a next man up mentality. We have to get those guys ready to play a team that is playing as well as any that we have played. Defensively, they are extremely, extremely good at what they do.