Ole Miss 5-Star Has It Now

"Everyone" has been anxiously awaiting the arrival, so to speak, of junior DE Channing Ward, who, up until this year, was a little-used, highly-recruited player for Ole Miss. This season, he's getting more snaps. Why? The former Scout 5-star is going to tell you.

The elation and celebration over the commitment to play for Ole Miss from five-star Defensive End Channing Ward rivaled that of just about anyone's in the last 20 years.

Channing, from Aberdeen, you see, was the most highly-rated player to join Coach Hugh Freeze his first recruiting season, which was abbreviated and somewhat done on the fly.

Ward was something for success-starved Rebels to hang their hats on, so to speak.

Things had been gloomy for a couple of months following the 2-10 2011 season and Rebel Nation needed a spark. Certainly Freeze being hired was a shot in the arm, but him being able to come on board and secure the services of Ward was a "must have" situation for the new regime.

Predictions of Ward's early impact were running rampant. "Instant starter." "All-American potential." "Can't miss." All were common threads on message boards concerning Ward.

The expectations for Ward being an immediate dominant force were beyond reality, but it had been some time since the Rebels had inked a five-star recruit, so, why not anticipate the most?

Although Channing was not a disappointment to the coaches or his teammates, his first two years did not produce the way many Rebel fans projected or hoped.

In 2012, his true freshman year, Ward played in 12 games and produced 21 tackles and 1 QB sack from his DE position. In 2013, he played in all 13 games and chalked up a few more stats - 24 stops, 1 sack, 2 forced fumbles and 7 pass breakups, but it was his reckless abandon on kickoff coverage that drew the eyes of most.

He was and is, in short, a fast moving tank with the intent to inflict bodily harm on anyone who dared to return a kickoff against the Rebels.

That special teams play led to even more questions. Why can't he get on the field more on defense?

Great question. . . that Ward himself answered recently.

"I had to learn the system better," he said bluntly. "I had to learn the plays better. If you don't know what to do, you can't perform as a player or as a team."

Ole Miss Coach Hugh Freeze refers to it as "spinning," when a player is thinking too much and not playing freely.

"Being confused or unfamiliar can paralyze your reaction time and your movement," said Freeze. "It happens a lot with young players and some players take longer than others to get everything down pat. When they finally get it mentally, you can see the game slow down for them and they can move more freely and react more quickly to what is happening around them."

Channing, as his stats indicate, improved marginally as a sophomore, but there was still a hesitation in his play, as Rebel Defensive Coordinator Dave Wommack explained.

"When Channing got something cemented in his mind, he was a playmaker, but when he didn't have something down, he was a different player," noted Wommack.

A major goal in recruiting last year was to shore up the defensive end slots. Reb fans recall in '13 when C.J. Johnson and Carlos Thompson went down early in the season for the year to injury, the Rebels went so far as to move DT Bryon Bennett to DE. The pass rush generated from the edges last year was overall ineffective.

Fadol Brown was on the shelf with the required transfer redshirt. He would be eligible for this year. Marquis Haynes was signed and was at Ole Miss for spring practice. C.J. and Carlos were healthy again and John Youngblood became a reliable, trusted performer.

Because of those develpopments, in spring the coaches opted to move Channing to a need position - tight end, the prototype, hand on the ground type of TE at 6-4, 275 pounds. He made some progress there, showing good blocking skills and decent hands, but in the offseason, the Rebel coaches opted to go in a different direction at tight end with converted quarterback Jeremy Liggins, another big, athletic player who was going to be underutilized at QB.

Ward was moved back to defensive end in August.

"The light started coming on for Channing more often," noted Wommack.

Channing expressed that sentiment as well.

"I wasn't messing up as much," he smiled. "My coaches and teammates kept encouraging me and things just started coming to me easier. I learned my plays."

There is another side to Ward also that the coaches have recognized and used to their advantage.

"Channing plays better in games than he practices sometimes," Wommack stated. "He still makes mistakes, but he doesn't make as many in games, it seems, as he does in practice. Overall, he's better, much better."

Channing is still not a starter, but he can shows signs of dominating, which his athletic skill set shows he should be doing frequently. From a physical standpoint, the five-star recruiting ranking was a correct one.

Ward is in the defensive end rotation this year, but he's still going to have to earn his stripes with dynamic play on the kickoff coverage team, which he relishes.

"What little guy is going to get in front of me when I am running down the field full speed?" he asked while smiling.

The answer, not many.

It's taken Channing Ward longer than most expected to become a force for the Rebels and the area he's dominant in - kickoff coverage - wasn't anticipated either.

But now the coaches and Channing are seeing light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

That can only be good news for the Rebel defense down the line.

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