Spring football is finally upon us, as Ole Miss is set to kickoff practice on Thursday.
Rebels coach Hugh Freeze has never been shy about his thoughts on spring practices, so don’t expect Ole Miss to have many scrimmages in the coming weeks. There will also be no spring game, while real grass is put into place in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
The next few weeks will be used to adjust to life after Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche, who all declared for the 2016 NFL Draft. However, Chad Kelly is back at quarterback, and there are still plenty of playmakers surrounding him for the offense to be among the SEC’s best in 2016.
Three storylines to watch
- Chad Kelly becomes the leader: With the majority of the stars from Ole Miss’ 2013 recruiting class now gone, Kelly is the unequivocal leader of the Rebels’ offense. It’s now his team, and every Ole Miss opponent knows his strengths and weaknesses. Kelly was playing at an elite level at the end of last season, but can he build on that and become even better? His arm strength allows him to make all the throws, and with Kelly more involved in the running game in the latter half of 2015, the Rebels were almost unstoppable offensively. This will be a big spring for Kelly to take control of the team and find rhythm with some newcomers.
- Piecing together the offensive line: With Tunsil and Fahn Cooper gone at both tackle spots as well as Justin Bell and Aaron Morris gone at guard, there are plenty of question marks along the Rebels’ offensive line. Throw in Robert Conyers and Rod Taylor, who are out with injuries, and there aren’t many bodies to go around this spring for Ole Miss up front. Five-star signee Greg Little will be expected to play from day one, but he’s not on campus yet, so look for Javon Patterson, Jordan Sims, Sean Rawlings and Alex Givens to get plenty of reps. Also, despite being sidelined from physical drills, Taylor may be asked to move from guard to tackle, so this spring will be important for him to learn the mental side of the position.
- Wide receivers taking on new roles: With Ole Miss losing its two top receivers in Treadwell and Cody Core, several players will be asked to increase their production in 2016. Luckily for the Rebels, they are loaded at wideout. It all starts with Damore’ea Stringfellow, who has all the tools to be an all-SEC caliber player. Ole Miss also needs more consistency from Quincy Adeboyejo and Markell Pack. Also, don’t forget about DaMarkus Lodge and Van Jefferson, who both have received tons of praise from the coaching staff.
Newcomers to watch
- Freshman quarterback Shea Patterson: There’s no denying Kelly is the guy at quarterback from day one, but it’s hard not to be a little intrigued by Patterson, the nation’s top quarterback recruit in the Class of 2016. As an early enrollee, Patterson will get a head start on learning Ole Miss’ offense and cement himself as Kelly’s backup in his first year on campus. With Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade no longer on the roster, it’ll be a battle between Patterson and redshirt freshman Jason Pellerin to be the go-to guy in emergency situations.
- Redshirt freshman wide receiver Van Jefferson: The battle for playing time is as though as it comes for Ole Miss’ wide receivers, but the optimism around Jefferson is hard to miss. It remains to be seen how big of role the Rebels need him to play in 2016, but Jefferson appears to be a polished route runner with consistent hands, which can provide some consistency and put him in line to get on the field ahead of some veteran players who have failed to take that next step in their progressions.
- Redshirt freshman running back Eric Swinney: After a stress fracture in his leg during the preseason forced a redshirt in 2015, Swinney could be the running back Ole Miss fans have been waiting for. There has been a ton of optimism surrounding Swinney’s abilities, and at 5-foot-9, 197-pounds, he’s a guy who can make defenders miss in the open field but also handle to load between the tackles. A lot of his playing time will depend on how he feels coming off that injury in a backfield that returns Akeem Judd and Jordan Wilkins, who ended last season on a positive note.