Football is back.
Ole Miss begins spring practice on Wednesday, and there is plenty of work to be done for a team that lost a ton of talent. Defensively, the Rebels will be without defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, linebacker C.J. Johnson, safety Trae Elston and defensive back Mike Hilton, among other key losses.
However, Ole Miss still has a lot of quality options on that side of the football, including defensive back Tony Conner, who will be out all spring as he recovers from his knee injury that held him out the majority of 2015. There are also several early enrollees that will look to get a jump on things and play a role in their first year on campus.
Three storylines to watch
- Linebacker depth: Ole Miss has a ton of issues on the depth chart at linebacker. The Rebels return just two linebackers, DeMarquis Gates and Terry Caldwell, that have played considerable snaps during their careers. Ole Miss is alleviating some of the problem with Oregon State graduate transfer Rommel Mageo, who will join the team in June. But there’s still a lot of work to be done, and the Rebels will be relying on some young talent to fill the void.
- C.J. Hampton’s progression: With Elston, Hilton and Chief Brown no longer on the roster, there are plenty of question marks surrounding safety play for Ole Miss. C.J. Hampton has played a lot during his first two seasons, but inconsistency has plagued his career so far. He has all the talent to be a very reliable player on the backend of the Rebels’ landshark defense, but he has to take a step forward.
- No more Nkemdiche’s: There’s no denying the positive impact that Robert and Denzel Nkemdiche had on Ole Miss, but there’s also no forgetting the off-the-field issues that plagued the brothers during their collegiate careers. With the Nkemdiche era officially at its end in Oxford, Miss., it will be interesting to see how the chemistry surrounding the Rebels’ defense improves.
Newcomers to watch
- Redshirt freshman linebacker Shawn Curtis: He was a late pickup in the Class of 2015, but the coaches have had positive comments about Curtis’ play on the practice field during his redshirt season. The biggest question mark is regarding his lateral speed, but in Ole Miss’ 4-2-5 defense, the Rebels can get by with a middle linebacker who lacks elite speed for the position. If Curtis can continue to build upon that this spring, he should work his way into the linebacker rotation before the season rolls around.
- Freshman defensive tackle Benito Jones: If Jones were two inches taller, he likely would’ve been a top 15 prospect on every major recruiting network. Instead, Jones was often forgotten during Ole Miss’ pursuit for a top-five recruiting class. However, the 6-foot-1, 285-pounder has an elite first step — think defensive tackle Issac Gross but 45 pounds heavier. The Rebels have big-time talents in D.J. Jones and Breeland Speaks returning on the interior of the defensive line, but Jones should be a big candidate to play a lot as a true freshman.
- Freshman defensive end Charles Wiley: Ole Miss’ biggest need on the defensive line is at defensive end. Marquis Haynes returns as one of the SEC’s premier pass rushers and Fadol Brown is back as well, but there’s a void to be filled on the depth chart. The Rebels do have John Youngblood and Victor Evans who bring experience to the position, but Wiley could still be a candidate for early playing time. On National Signing Day, coach Hugh Freeze said Wiley was one of the fastest pass rushers he’s ever seen, and if he figures out the technique and develops multiple moves that are needed to excel at this level, he could be an immediate contributor.