Looking back at a disastrous 2016 season for Ole Miss, you can choose from a slew of factors that triggered the collapse: injuries, coaching and dismal defense among them. The absence of a decent running game cracks the top 5.
For the second time in three years, the Rebels rushing attack finished 11th among SEC in yards per carry, at 4.25. Only twice did Ole Miss running backs combine for 200 yards rushing in a single game — one of those was against Memphis. And coach Hugh Freeze’s pass-heavy system didn’t help produce balance. Ole Miss rushed the ball 35 times a game, the 12th-lowest rate of any Power 5 team last season.
Still, was the dip in rushing production that surprising? Not really. Ole Miss said goodbye to four senior starters on the offensive line, including first-rounder Laremy Tunsil, after the 2015 season. Then running back Jordan Wilkins learned he would have to sit out the 2016 season because of “an administrative error” related to his academic eligibility.
“The way he handled it made you proud,” Freeze said of Wilkins. “He’s been listening to us about how to handle adversity in life. The leadership role he provides having gone through that gives him even more credibility.”
As the season went downhill, so too did the offensive line’s injury situation. At one point tackle Sean Rawlings became the starting center out of necessity. So, yeah, none of this really set the Rebels up to succeed in rushing.
That could change in 2017, for a couple of reasons.
Number one: Freeze expects big things from Wilkins, a junior who showed great promise in his first two years on campus.
“With the disappointing news of not going to a bowl game next year with our self-imposed deal, I was curious to see how he’d react,” Freeze said. “And he immediately took the charge on, ‘This is how we’re going to handle it.’ I’m just so proud and praying he has a healthy year, because I think he’s going to have a special year.”
Freeze also cited progress he saw across the offensive line, which returns most of its starters from last season. Left tackle Greg Little, a former 5-star recruit, gained valuable experience as a true freshman. Upperclassmen Jordan Sims, Javon Patterson and Daronte Bouldin should anchor the interior.
“I said from Day 1 it would take us four to five years to get the offensive line the way we wanted it,” Freeze said. “I believe if we stay healthy, we’re going to have one of the better offensive lines in the country.
“The job [offensive line coach Matt Luke] has done in recruiting and being able to redshirt finally has paid off for us. Really excited about the comfort level and the chemistry those guys have up there. We’ve got most everybody back.”
It’s hard to gauge whether Ole Miss will show more balance under new coordinator Phil Longo, a disciple of Mike Leach and the Air Raid offense. For what it’s worth, Longo told SEC Country that his philosophy on running the ball differs from other Air Raid gurus including Leach and Kliff Kingsbury.
“At some point I feel like it’s important to have an emphasis on the run game,” Longo said. “I don’t particularly care if we throw or run it 70 times to win a game … As long as it’s what the defense is giving us, I’m all for it.”
However often the Rebels hand the ball to a running back this fall, they’ll at least have the tools to be better on the ground — and that will help sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson and his young receivers.