Weighing Options

Derrick Nix is in his seventh season coaching running backs at Ole Miss.

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He's produced some of the top rushers in school history, including Dexter McCluster and Brandon Bolden, both having since moved on to the NFL.

But never before in any of his previous seasons has he had the depth he has with the 2014 crop, led by juniors I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton, and rounded out with sophomore Mark Dodson and redshirt freshmen Jordan Wilkins and Eugene Brazley.

"I think we've done a good job of recruiting and getting some kids in that fit this scheme No. 1, and some guys that can do a little bit of different things," Nix said in late March, as Ole Miss was winding down spring practices.

"They all bring a little something different to the table. I'm excited about bringing guys like I'Tavius and Jaylen back with experience, as well as Mark Dodson and some guys we asked to redshirt last year. I'm looking forward to these guys growing and getting better and better."

Jordan Wilkins
Thomas Graning

The Rebels, who were 8-5 last season, including a win over Georgia Tech in the Music City Bowl in December, finished seventh in the Southeastern Conference in rushing in 2013.

Overall, Nix said he was pleased with the results. Mathers and Walton each had over 500 yards on the ground, while now-departed veteran Jeff Scott netted 493. In total, Ole Miss amassed 2,470 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns.

But, as you would expect, Nix believes there is room for improvement.

"We can always be better," he said. "The No. 1 thing I took from last season is I want them to be able to go get the garbage yards. You know, the yards the average fan doesn't see but you end up gaining, sneaking in three or four yards. To the average fan, it doesn't look like anything is happening, unlike our guys breaking loose upfield.

"But getting the tough yards and keeping the chains moving, challenging them around the goal line and around the short-yardage area. If we don't block anybody, we can beat one guy. Those are the things I want to get accomplished."

If spring practices were any indication, Nix will have more options at his disposal to ensure the Rebels get those garbage yards next season.

Nix knows what he has in Mathers and Walton. Both have shown capable and proven productive in their careers. Now, Nix is simply looking for the pair to "master what we're trying to get accomplished" and "polishing themselves."

The spring was more for Dodson, who had 124 yards and a touchdown as a true freshman, and Wilkins and Brazley. Brazley sat out all of last season as he recovered from an ACL injury.

"I've got to brag on all three of them, starting with Mark Dodson," Nix said. "He's done a tremendous job for us this spring, just kind of adding on from what he did in the regular season. He didn't get a whole lot of playing time, but he got enough to get a feel for what we want on offense. He's tried to be a physical presence for us, and he's done a good job. Jordan Wilkins has done a good job of being a guy with more size. He finishes runs. He's physical. He's shown enough wiggle and enough athleticism to be able to do some things out in space like catching the ball out of the backfield.

"The kid I guess that would be a surprise – we didn't feel that way when we were recruiting him – coming off of injury is Eugene Brazley. He's coming on and played very hard and showed a little shiftiness that we haven't had with a guy of his dimensions. And he's willing to catch the ball and pass protect. He just needs to continue to learn what to do. He's probably the furthest away right now in terms of knowing our scheme inside and out. But those three guys have done a good job of making me feel good that we have enough backs that can go out there and perform at a high level."

Eugene Brazley
Petre Thomas

The 5-foot-9, 183-pound Brazley and the 6-foot-1, 209-pound Wilkins are wild cards in a lot of ways, according to Nix. Both bring something to the table Ole Miss doesn't have.

"I think whenever a kid has an injury of that magnitude, you're always worried if he'll be able to come back and be the same. I give our training staff an A+ in getting him back," Nix said of Brazley. "I'm very pleased with where he's at right now. I really didn't know if he would be able to go out this spring and do what he's doing. He's shown no limitations at all. I think the biggest thing is getting his legs all the way back underneath him again. He sat out all last year, but very pleased with him.

"I want to challenge (Wilkins) to do even more. He's shown flashes of being what he can be – being that physical presence that we've lacked. He's still a freshman; that's the good part about it. We still have more time to work with him, but he has the tools to be able to do whatever we want to do in this offense. It's about continuing to build confidence and continuing to master his craft."

Noticeably absent from the Rebel backfield in the spring was Kailo Moore. The rising sophomore with speed to burn was moved to cornerback, a need position the Ole Miss defense.

Nix recruited Moore for the better part of five years. And while he tried his best to keep Moore on offense, Moore, along with the Rebel defensive coaches, opted for the switch, which is still in the experimental stage.

"I tried to fight that for a whole year now," Nix joked. "You know how those defensive guys are. When you recruit a kid hard, especially when they finally get here, they look at your inventory while you got it and they start picking out which one they think can do what. Kailo fell victim to that.

"But it was all about him. He wanted to do what was best for the team to try and help solidify a position we were a little bit thinner at. We have some pretty good depth at running back, but it was a little weird. Me and him will have little jokes with each other after practice sometimes. He'll say ‘Coach, just make sure you have one or two packages on offense so I can carry that rock a little bit.' But he's doing well on that side of the ball and making strides there. We can always move him back. I think it's an experiment right now. Kailo can do whatever he puts his mind to."

So, he wasn't able to hold on to Moore, a former four-star prospect out of Rosedale, Miss. One less option for Nix.

Fortunately, and a stark contrast from previous years, he actually has the numbers to absorb the loss.

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