The Rebels held their first full-pad practice Saturday, and starting quarterback Chad Kelly didn’t participate due to a groin injury. The task of moving the offense fell to Patterson and redshirt freshman Jason Pellerin — a preview of an intriguing battle sure to ensue this time next year, but also what could be should anything happen to Kelly.
Patterson is a former five-star prospect. He was rated the No. 1 overall quarterback in the country by Scout.com, and he enrolled at Ole Miss in January.
“Pleased,” head coach Hugh Freeze said. “Shea’s not a normal freshman. He’s got a good understanding of the game, but there’s still times that it moves a little fast for him because everything’s new. You’re installing stuff each day. Jason’s very athletic and big and strong. Chad didn’t take any snaps Saturday, and I thought those two handled it fairly well.”
But save for some good plays here and there, defense dominated the day, though the offense somewhat returned the favor Tuesday, including touchdown runs of 70 yards and 35 yards by running backs Jordan Wilkins and Akeem Judd, respectively.
The up-and-down nature of practices can be attributed to a retooled offensive line experiencing growing pains as it looks to replace both of its starting tackles. Laremy Tunsil, who started 28 games over three seasons and allowed only two sacks, roamed the Manning Center practice field, stopping a few times to observe Jeremy Liggins and Alex Givens. He's gone now, as is Fahn Cooper. Liggins and Givens are among those who are expected to factor into the offensive line rotation in some capacity next season.
Still, Ole Miss is without its full compliment of players. Robert Conyers (ACL) and Roderick Taylor (shoulder) are sitting out spring drills due to injuries, and an impressive offensive line haul in the recruiting class of 2016 — led by five-star Greg Little — won’t arrive until the summer.
“By the end of spring, hopefully we’ve improved the ones we have,” Freeze said. “That’s what our job is, and I love the effort they’re giving and the work they’re giving. But you’re not preparing them for some of the stuff they’re going to see because as soon as you make corrections on film, there’s something else going in the next day that they’ll see that’s a little different. That typically puts you behind the eight ball for a week or so, two weeks. Then the last three you hope to catch up somewhat.”
Liggins has impressed in the early days of camp. A former star prep quarterback from nearby Lafayette (Miss.) High School, Liggins played all of last season at tight end. He’s attempting to make a smooth transition to offensive tackle, and he’s even begun receiving reps in the starting spot vacated by Tunsil on the left side.
“Some good stuff, some bad stuff,” Freeze said. “Some uncertainty, which is to be expected. He’s very athletic. We’re excited. I think it’s a good move for him, good move for us. If you look, percentage-wise, he played a very small percentage of snaps. He’s too athletic to not have him on the field. We’ve got to find a way to get him on there.”
Freeze admitted, if nothing else, the 6-foot-3, 302-pound Liggins certainly has the look. He’s one of a handful Freeze said reaped the benefits of the offseason strength and conditioning program.
“I think Jeremy’s body’s changed, and his work ethic has changed,” he said. “Getting the reports from them and watching the running that they do. I’m real pleased with how he’s come along. I think the kids you got in here even in the short time they’ve had … Myles (Hartsfield) has gained 12 pounds. Michael Howard’s gained a lot of weight and muscle, as has (Montrell) Custis. Those guys who had a redshirt year, they’ve all matured. I think it’ll help them as they move forward to next year.
“Myles Hartsfield, I think, is very athletic, explosive. Custis has done some really good things also. Alex Givens, I like his toughness. Those are the three that kind of jump to mind. Jalen Julius at corner, I think, has got something to him.”
The offseason has certainly been important for senior defensive tackle Issac Gross. Gross missed most all of last season with a neck injury. Though he’s dressed for practices, he isn’t participating much, which Freeze said won’t change.
That didn’t stop Gross from running back and forth at midfield during late-practice scrimmage work with his helmet off to cheer on his teammates.
“He may be cleared, but we won’t try that,” Freeze said. “We’ll let him get all the way through summer and give him as much time as we can to get totally healed. He’s pretty determined. I think it’s helped he’s gotten a lot stronger, gotten bigger. Doctors feel good. Every MRI shows that it’s being healed properly. We’re optimistic. There’s others who’ve had this before that have done well.”
Gross reported last week he’s up to 260 pounds. Freeze said he’ll gladly take Gross at that weight, if not heavier.
“I’ll take him as big as he can get,” he said. “If he can be 260 when the season starts, that would be awesome because that’s 20-something pounds heavier that anything he’s been since he’s been here. We’ll take it. Everything’s progressing nicely. He’s really committed himself to the nutrition part of it, too. We laid out a plan for him nutritionally, and he’s followed it pretty close.”
* Ole Miss defensive tackle Breeland Speaks was arrested and charged with a DWI over the weekend. Speaks was practicing Tuesday. Freeze reiterated the sophomore will be disciplined, and the possibility exists that discipline could extend to the 2016 season-opening game against Florida State in Orlando, Fla. “Breeland’s practicing. He’s ready to go, as normal. There’s consequences, and I have them laid out. I’ve told him what they are, but when I discipline my three girls, I don’t tell everybody what that is. I try to keep it that way. They’re like my kids. You don’t stop loving your kids when they make a poor choice or a bad decision, but there are consequences. He’ll handle them. He knows it was a mistake, and he’s well-aware of it.”
* Willie Hibbler spent much of last week on a stationary bike as he recovered/continues to recover from a broken right hand. He returned to practice with a heavily-wrapped club, and so far he’s receiving positive reviews following his position change from tight end. The word is he’s very bight and is picking things up quickly in the film room.
* A few additional players to watch over the coming weeks are redshirt freshman running back Eric Swinney and true freshman defensive end Charles Wiley. Swinney was released to full contact on Tuesday. “I’m anxious to see him run,” Freeze said. Wiley looks the part of an SEC defensive lineman, but Freeze said he’s swimming a bit as he gets adjusted to life at the next level. “It’s good to have Charles here, and he’s very athletic and very quick-twitched. He’s swimming right now, too, with everything being thrown at him so fast. I tell you, if you run zone-read to his side, it’s hard. He’s like Marquis (Haynes), he can play both.”
* As previously noted, Kelly was slowed by a groin injury and didn’t practice late last week. He’s fine now, however. Linebacker DeMarquis Gates was in street clothes with a boot on his left foot. Damore’ea Stringfellow and D.J. Jones missed, too. Stringfellow isn’t expected back until after spring break. Freshman safety Greg Eisworth’s hamstring is healed and he’s on track for a full recovery. He’s practicing at husky and rover. None of the injuries are considered serious. “Nothing of significance,” Freeze said. “A ding here and a ding there, but nothing of significance.”
* Hartsfield, Zedrick Woods and Custis continue to impress. Hartsfield is rotating between husky and rover, while Woods is playing predominantly rover. Custis is a husky.
* Senior linebacker Temario Strong is positioning himself to be the fifth linebacker for Ole Miss in the fall, meaning he’ll called upon to back up at both stinger and MLB — an important role for the Rebel defense. Meanwhile, sophomore Ross Donelly is making a surge at defensive tackle, we’re told. Benito Jones is showing out, but he’s not consistent yet, as you’d expect from a true freshman. Regardless, he’s showing great talent and tremendous upside.
* From left to right, the offensive line played out as follows: LT Liggins, LG Javon Patterson, C Jacob Feely, RG Jordan Sims and RT Sean Rawlings. Rawlings, if you remember, started seven games last season at right tackle. He’s being tried at center as well. Bottom line: Ole Miss is going to play its best five, and versatility matters.
* The starting speciality snapper is oftentimes forgotten, and that’s somewhat by design. You’re not supposed to hear or see the speciality snapper, so long as he’s doing his job, and for the first time in a while, Ole Miss is on the lookout for someone to step up and handle the duties. So far, so good for Will Few. He hasn’t been perfect, but his times on PAT and FGs have been good.
* Senior wide receiver Quincy Adeboyejo arrived at Ole Miss three-plus seasons ago at 179 pounds. He’s now 195 and a lot stronger, which he hopes is setting him up for a big season.