Silencing Doubters

ATLANTA, Ga. - Jaylen Walton heard it all before his junior season.

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Too small. Not an every-down running back. Fast, but not fast enough. Better utilized as a situational player. Size is a liability in pass protection.

No matter if any of the criticisms carried weight, Walton dealt with detractors from every direction in the first two years of his Rebel career.

Now? Silence.

Walton started all 12 games this season, despite the competition he faced from a crowded Ole Miss backfield. The Rebels have eight running backs on their roster, five of which saw regular carries in 2014. Walton carried the load, however, finishing with 583 yards on 98 carries, as well as 18 catches for 201 yards.

“It means a lot to me. It gives me more confidence every play to do better,” Walton, who played in every game as a sophomore but with only seven starts, said of being the unquestioned No. 1. “I don’t ever want to come off the field unless I’m hurt or completely gassed. Most of the time I’m not. I play every play hard.”

“He understands the offense so well,” Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace said. “And just in blocking and protecting me, he's probably the best one at that. The kid runs hard. I know our running backs and our running game got a lot of flak. But that kid brought it every time he was on the field. As an offensive player, you appreciate that.”

Ole Miss struggled on the ground all season, finishing 10th in the Southeastern Conference and 67th nationally with 2,012 total rushing yards.

Part of the issue was a new-look Ole Miss offensive line attempting to find its footing and develop chemistry. The Rebels replaced three starters, but perhaps more importantly, they lacked depth. Opposing defenses took advantage as the season wore on.

Ole Miss turned to Walton as the underwhelming rushing performances mounted. He delivered, too, nearly matched the carries of I’Tavius Mathers and Jordan Wilkins combined, falling just 10 shy.

“People look at him and because he's smaller think he's not a powerful back,” Ole Miss co-offensive coordinator Dan Werner said. “He is powerful and explosive. As you're watching film, he's making something out of nothing on numerous occasions and when he did get a seam, he was popping it for a big gainer. He was the guy we felt like we had to have in there more. The other guys are good and we feel good about getting them in, it's just he's won out here at the end.”

Walton and the Ole Miss offensive line broke out against in-state rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl. Ole Miss tallied 205 rushing yards in the game. Walton accounted for 148.

His third-quarter, 91-yard touchdown run will go down as one of the great plays in the history of the rivalry. He reversed field and broke a handful of tackles to reach the end zone, igniting the Vaught-Hemingway crowd and providing Ole Miss the 14-point lead it would never relinquish.

“As the year went on and guys were kind of talking about our running game, he kind of took that personally,” Wallace said of Walton. “You saw the culmination of that in the Egg Bowl. He wanted to make a statement that day. I think he did.”

“I’m just trying to take advantage of every opportunity,” Walton said. “Every time I touch the ball, make a play, be explosive and score points for the team. I try to put my team in situations to win.”

The play was yet another example of Walton developing into a more complete running back; one who, despite his size, finishes runs and can handle as many touches as the Ole Miss coaching staff wants to throw his way.

Ole Miss was without its top two wide receivers – Laquon Treadwell and Vince Sanders – against Mississippi State. Walton, in turn, was given an increased workload, touching the ball 16 times, including twice in the passing game.

“As a ball-carrier, you’ve got to finish a run, even if you don’t score a touchdown,” Walton said. “Every time I’m touching the ball, I’m coming at you 100 miles per hour. I’m doing my best to make a play for the team and put points on the board.”

Getting the ball into the hands of Walton will surely be a focal point in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, a Dec. 31 tilt pitting No. 9-ranked Ole Miss against No. 6 TCU. The game will be broadcast nationally at 12:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.

For Walton, Wednesday is another opportunity to prove himself and for Ole Miss to cement its standing among the national elite heading into 2015. The Rebels have national-championship aspirations.

“No doubt, man. We had a great chance going (to the playoff) this year, but things didn’t fall our way, the chips didn’t fall where we needed them to,” he said. “Next year we’re definitely going to give a lot of people a run for their money.”

And it starts with Walton, the 5-foot-8, 166-pound running back who’s made it all but impossible to take him off the field.

Doubt him now.

“You give me the ball,” Walton said, “I’m going to pretty much show you how good I am.”

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