Now There Are Plenty

A year ago in spring training, the Ole Miss football coaches switched Randall Mackey from QB to running back. Part of the reason was the RB cupboard was pretty bare. Flash a year forward to spring training and that is no longer the case.

Ole Miss Running Backs Coach Derrick Nix didn't have a lot of options last season.

It was Jeff Scott, Randall Mackey, a little help from some freshmen and pray for good health, with no offense intended to the other RB candidates.

Fortunately, for the most part, the praying did some good. Scott and Mackey made it through the year without major damage and, with the combined stats of the QBs, RBs and WRs, rushed for over 2,200 yards in 2012.

The spring of 2013 was a different story.

Nix had plenty to chose from. Despite Mackey graduating, Scott returned, the freshmen "grew up," Nick Parker showed flashes, and a true frosh who graduated early and a surprising JUCO were added to the flock.

"The whole group was very solid in spring. I was very pleased with them from a group standpoint," said Nix. "They all improved and competed for playing time in the fall.

"It feels good to have some quality numbers. We have options and we have guys who can produce situationally as well."

Scott, who gained over 800 yards last year, remains the number one gun at tailback.

"We didn't give him a ton of reps in spring because we know what he can do. We concentrated more on getting the others more reps to help them along in their development," Nix noted. "The number one thing about Jeff is that he looks so much more comfortable in the run game scheme and in protection. He knows what to do now without hesitation. The thing I want to see him do between now and fall camp is to get in the best possible shape he can because at his size, he can wear down during a season, which happened to him a little last year at times."

Jeff Scott
File Photo

The number two tailback is a little harder to decipher, according to Nix, but at the end of spring, it was sophomore Jaylen Walton.

"Jaylen has the same qualities as Jeff, he's just not as experienced. We repped him hard in spring training and it helped him. He improved a lot in learning the offense and in becoming a better receiver," Derrick continued. "He also understands the protections better. To be honest, I kind of look at Jeff and Jaylen as the same guy, if that makes sense.

"Ultimately, I want him to do a lot of the things we asked Mackey to do last year. To reach that goal, he will need to keep learning every detail of the offense. Adaptability is his big key."

I'tavius Mathers, like Walton, was a true frosh in 2012. Like Walton, he emerged in spring training.

"I'Tavius may have the best overall running skill of the bunch. He's big enough to run you over and shifty enough to almost always make the first guy miss," Derrick explained. "He has really improved his hands and his knowledge of the offense. The game has slowed down for him, which is a good sign. All I want to see him do is get that extra yardage at the end of runs. A great back knows instinctively when another move will not do him any good and he lowers his shoulders and finishes with another yard or two. I'Tavius can get to that point."

Nix has been waiting on junior Nick Parker to make an impression since his freshman year. After offseason eye surgery from a car accident, Nick came back more prepared to rumble.

"Nick has finally provided that big back factor we have been missing. He did well in short yardage situations and he's caught the ball well. He looks a little faster now to me. I think he can play a big role for us next year if he comes in to camp in shape and as quick as he was in spring," added Nix.

Jaylen Walton
File Photo

Even though Mark Dodson, who graduated from high school early and participated in spring training, is down the depth chart, Nix does not look for him to stay there based on his spring performance.

"Mark has done a great job, all things considered. The game is moving really fast for him, but he is working hard to adapt and get it to slow down," Nix assessed. "Naturally, things are running together for him from a learning curve perspective, so he had average days and real good days in spring. I think he will be much better in August. I want to see him learn the offense and improve his hands, but raw ability - he's got it. When he pushes the acceleration button, he can go from zero to 60 pretty fast."

"Pleasant surprise" is always good to hear after spring training. JUCO transfer Darryan Ragsdale provided that element to the RBs in spring training.

"Of all the backs, he runs the toughest. If there is nowhere to go, he will try to run you over," Nix smiled. "He has good initial quickness. Like Mark, he's feeling his way through and learning. I think he will be a lot better when August hits. He's got talent and showed flashes every single day in spring. He'd make a big run almost every day. I'm glad we have him here."

Jimmy Potepa, who walked on at Ole Miss two years ago, rounds out the RBs as fall approaches.

"Jimmy runs hard and makes some things happen. He has not gotten a lot of reps, but he tries to optimize them when he does, which impresses me," Nix closed.

Analysis: While the Rebs do not possess what many would call an ideal - size, speed, strength, quickness (Mathers may be the closest to that for now) - back, this is a group the offense can be very successful with. Scott shouldn't have to be a workhorse, which at his size is a plus in keeping him fresh and healthy. Walton and Mathers showed the improvement anticipated after being thrown in the fire so early in their careers. Parker showed in spring he doesn't mind the role of bulldozer. Dodson started spring slowly but improved day by day and exhibited why he was the best football player in Tennessee last fall. Ragsdale did something that impressed every day. Options. Ole Miss has them at running back and that is a luxury.

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