More Physical

Ole Miss Running Backs Coach Derrick Nix wanted to see more of a physical presence from his deep troop of ballcarriers in spring training. He felt like that goal was met and he finally has the luxury of quality depth.

Two years ago, Rebel RB Coach Derrick Nix had to convert a quarterback, Randall Mackey, to running back to help the only true tailback, Jeff Scott, out. Other than two promising true freshmen, the cupboard was bare.

That's no longer the case.

After spring training 2014, Nix believes he now has five backs who can help the cause in various ways. Knowing he had more depth, his demand this spring was for all his guys to get more physical. It was a risk he could afford to take this time around.

"They did a good job. I was very pleased. My big goal was for us to come out and establish a more physical presence and they did that, overall," Nix began. "I saw guys not trying to make as many moves in the backfield and guys not trying to make the perfect run. They were taking the yards that were there and then reacting.

"We have some veteran guys now who know what we are trying to do and they spent spring locking in to their assignments. It was a good spring session."

Junior I'Tavius Mathers emerged toward the end as the back to beat out, so to speak. Even though Nix will probably play tailbacks by committee, Mathers seemed to come out of spring training with a slight edge.

I'tavius Mathers
Petre Thomas

"I challenged him to be more physical and he responded. He obviously has the physical tools to be a fine back. He can make big plays, he can make people miss, but I wanted to see him play behind his pads more and live with the results. Not every play is going to be a big play and when you try to force that, in the long haul, you end up costing yourself sure yards. I wanted to impress on him that there's nothing wrong with a three or four-yard gain," Nix stated. "He did a great job of pass protection and he caught the ball well. I'm very happy with him coming out of spring."

Junior Jaylen Walton appeared to have the lead early in spring, but a hamstring injury the last several practices hurt his overall results. Nonetheless, he will be a big part of the Rebel backfield in 2014.

"He solidified himself as a guy who will be a high priority for us in this offense. You wouldn't think a guy his size would be able to run between the tackles effectively, but he can," Nnix explained. "He will also stick his nose in there on pass protection and he understands what we are doing. He was having a very good spring prior to his injury and I expect him to pick up where he left off in August."

Sophomore Mark Dodson also threw his hat in the ring for quality playing time due to his versatility.

"Mark was very, very solid. The first thing that comes to my mind is his versatility. He is a jack-of-all-trades. You ask him to make a block, he makes the block. You ask him to catch a pass, he catches it. You ask him to make a run slant, he does that. You ask him to run between the tackles and he get it done," Nix said. "He will be very valuable to this offense moving forward because of his willingness and unselfishness. Every time you are looking for a play to be made, he steps up and gets it done. I'm very happy with him."

Redshirt freshman Jordan Wilkins is a player that everyone watched closely in spring training due to the change of pace he gives the Rebel backfield. He's the biggest of the Rebel backs and should provide some punch to the group.

"I was also pleased with Jordan. He has all the tools. He has more speed and wiggle than you'd think and he catches the ball very well out of the backfield," Nix noted. "The thing I wanted from him is to be more consistent. He needs to learn to play with the same zeal and physical nature he is capable of every play. He has the ability to dominate if he will do it every play. He plays behind his pads well, he just needs to do it every single play and he can be special. The thing is, we forget how young he is. He's got a bright future here."

Redshirt freshman Eugene Brazley, who was rehabbing a high school knee injury last season, also made a positive impression and a splash with Nix.

Eugene Brazley
Thomas Graning

"The other backs will probably disagree, but Eugene probably has the most natural running ability of any of them," Nix said. "When to make cuts, how to set up blocks, vision – he has some of those things you can't coach and he just naturally does. He's not all the way back to 100% from the knee injury and he is still trying to learn the offense, but he's making excellent progress.

"There's no denying his talent and I think as time goes on he will only get better and better."

Overview: While no "great" back has taken over and run away from the pack, all five of the top guys have shown they can make plays and they are still a relatively young group. Nix has a happy dilemma – who to give the ball to. Compared to 2012, and even at times in 2013, it's a good problem to have. The key word for this group: versatile. There's some power, there's some speed, there's some receiving threat, there's some protection assets, there's elusiveness. Nix just has to determine who to use when and all is well.

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