Spring Preview: Offense

Since the day the star-studded class of 2013 – replete with four 5-star recruits – signed, a lot of Ole Miss fans have been pointing to 2015 as “the year.”

It’s easy to understand the excitement – there are many factors pointing toward ’15 being a good one, but first things first.

There are steps to take and issues to resolve. Some of that was taken care of, it is thought and hoped, with some mid-year signees – QB Chad Kelly, DT D.J. Jones, CB Tony Bridges, OL Javon Patterson and LB Terry Caldwell, a stellar class of mid-year “plug-ins” if there ever was one, but the proving ground for them and many more Rebels will begin with spring training.

The Rebel squad has the makings of a quality team with a lot of returning veterans, but to deny there are holes to fill is short-sighted and not realistic. While everyone involved wants the high expectations that are already accompanying this team, they also understand there is plenty of work to be done between now and next September with the starting point being the recently-completed phase one of the offseason program and moving seamlessly into spring and the month where players state their cases as to the value to the team.


OFFENSE


Spring training for the Rebel offense is going to be tricky, to say the least.

The Rebel offensive line will be looking for improvement in 2015, and with all of them but lightly-used Chase Hughes coming back, that should be viable, but during spring training two stalwarts (LT Laremy Tunsil and LG Aaron Morris) and one rising contributor (Daronte Bouldin, the strongest player on the team) will be sidelined due to offseason surgery and not being physically fit for spring ball.

“The more guys work together as a unit, the better they should get. Spring is an ideal time to develop more continuity and mesh more and more,” said Offensive Coordinator Dan Werner, who also doubles as the quarterback coach. “It will be difficult to do that with Tunsil and Morris out and (C/T Robert) Conyers limited, but it is what it is.”

Werner is pragmatic – “it is what it is” – but he’s also, at the same time, a glass-half-full type of mentor.

“We will have Ben Still, Justin Bell and Fahn Cooper – three starters from last year and the right side of the line – available, so there’s that,” Dan continued, “and this situation will give a lot of kids ample opportunity to show what they’ve got, get better and make themselves more valuable to our cause.

“They are all going to get a lot of reps and quite a few of them are going to get reps with the first team as we feel our way through this spring. We need for several of them to have good springs to build our depth and be able to depend on them next fall. We played a lot of the last part of the season with several kids who were gutting it out and getting through the season who needed surgery, but we couldn’t afford to take them out of the lineup due to our lack of depth. They weren’t injuries that could get any worse, but they were injuries that hampered their performances at times.

“If we had reliable backups to put in there, we would have.”

The keen eye will be watching for players like converted TE Jeremy Liggins, who was moved in the offseason to OT; sophomore Rod Taylor, who had flashes of excellence as a true freshman; redshirt freshmen Sean Rawlings, who is quickly becoming one of the stronger players on the front; RS frosh Jordan Sims, who showed promise after losing 40-ish pounds during the season; redshirt OT Christian Morris, a late transfer to Ole Miss last season; and Patterson, who the coaches are already singing praises of due to the way he has come to Ole Miss straight from graduating early from high school and has already blended in nicely, to name a few.

“Jeremy is big, strong and athletic,” Werner said. “He’s everything you look for in an offensive tackle. It’s going to take hard work on his part and a lot of coaching on ours because it will all be so new to him, but he did play tight end last year and did quite a bit of blocking and he did well. We are all excited to see how this pans out for him, but I know his future is bright on the offensive line.

“Sean and Jordan spent most of their time with the offensive scout team during the season, but the reports I have been getting are positive. They are two strong young men with grit and they have both changed their bodies for the better. I’m anxious to see them mix it up in spring and see them progress. They will certainly get the chance.

“We already know that Rod is a terrific athlete, he just has to continue progressing with his knowledge of technique and in our system. We think Javon, depending on how he transitions from high school to this level when in actuality he’s still a high school senior during spring, is a shoe-in to be special at some point. Hopefully it will be sooner rather than later. And we have hope for Christian and Davion Johnson and a couple of others.

“They all need to have productive springs, however, including the returning starters who will be available for spring training. The offensive line, even though we know some things will be limited in spring training, will be a focal point for us. It’s a wide open race.”

The dilemma of the offensive line could also have a trickle-down effect. While “it all starts up front” in the SEC, who will be the trigger man to replace Bo Wallace, the starting QB the last three years and a player who leaves Ole Miss as the all-time total offense leader, will be a major priority in spring training.

So why the trickle-down? Werner explains.

“Our hope is that we can piece together enough of an OL to give our quarterback candidates time to operate so we can see their true ability come out,” he noted. “If we can, then it will go a long way in determining who will replace Bo. If we can’t, it will be difficult to get a true gauge on how those guys are progressing.”

The main candidates are, obviously, sophomores Devante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan, junior college transfer Chad Kelly and redshirt freshman Kendrick Doss.

“We are going to have a simple approach this spring,” said Dan. “We are going to even out the reps and see who surfaces as the starter and, almost as importantly, see who emerges as the top backup. At the end of spring, I would love to have a clear cut guy, but if not, we will carry the competition over to August.”

Werner said that even though Kincade and Buchanan have had two seasons with him, he still doesn’t have a feel for how they will perform when one of them is “the man.”

“They are now going to get reps with the ones – something they’ve never gotten. That will help their confidence, it will help their timing and it will put them in a different frame of mind mentally. It’s huge to know you could be the man, mentally,” he explained. “This spring, they get to work with the ones, develop their timing with receivers, go against our best defense, the whole works. It’s a different game for them now and I want to see who will respond to that challenge and run with it.

“Anyone who judged either one of them in their work against Arkansas isn’t being very fair. One, they had no work with the number one offense that week. Two, nobody played very well in that game. Three, the conditions were miserable. It’s just wasn’t a fair test of their ability, no matter how you slice it.”

The ‘X’ factor in the deal will be Kelly, a sometimes troubled JUCO transfer who is on a second-chance journey with hopes of stardom and success at the end of the path.

“Our receivers have told me that in offseason throwing, which coaches cannot watch, Chad has shown a cannon of an arm, capable of making all the throws,” Werner stated, “but there’s more to playing quarterback than throwing the ball. What I’ll be watching is how he protects the ball and his decision-making. Bo didn’t have a strong arm, but he did the little things that made him a winner and that’s why he left here tied with Eli Manning for the most wins of a starting QB at Ole Miss and the total offense leader. He didn’t always make good decisions, but he made way more good ones than bad ones and it resulted in us beating some pretty good teams with him pulling the trigger.

“I’m very anxious to see Chad compete for the job, learn the system and watch how he handles the decision-making process.”

Werner seemed fairly “content” with his spring candidates at tight end, wide receiver and running back, but there are some areas he’s going to be watching closely as spring progresses.

“We need to bring (RS freshman Sammie) Epps up to speed at tight end to go along with proven veteran Evan Engram. We need to find a player or two who can fill the roles left by Nick Parker, and now Liggins, as our power TEs since he has been moved,” Dan expressed. “I’m also excited to see how Demore’ea Stringfellow and Dayall Harris, who we redshirted last year, blend in with a pretty talented group and I want to see Markell Pack progress this spring the way Quincy (Adeboyejo) progressed last spring.

“At running back, we have two guys with good movement (Jaylen Walton and Eugene Brazley) and a pair of bigger backs in Akeem Judd and Jordan Wilkins. We know a lot about Wilkins and Walton, but want to see more of Judd, who was redshirted last year, and Brazley, who was buried in the depth chart but showed flashes. Judd is a big, physical back we have been wanting and it will be fun to see what he can accomplish. I think we are solid at WR, TE and RB, but spring will still be a proving ground for all of them.”


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