The Rebels are aiming to replace five starters from last season, including three-year starter at left tackle Laremy Tunsil — a first-round NFL Draft pick of the Miami Dolphins who allowed all of two sacks in his three-year college career.
At first glance, the numbers can be intimidating. From Tunsil and Aaron Morris to Justin Bell, Fahn Cooper and Ben Still, gone are 156 career starts. Thirty-nine of those starts came in 2016, when Ole Miss finished with a 10-3 record and a rout of Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl.
But just as games aren’t won or lost on paper, neither is the formation of an offensive line, and Ole Miss has plenty of talent and depth — and starts — returning to protect Heisman hopeful quarterback Chad Kelly.
“I think we have good potential there,” Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said Thursday prior to the fifth practice of fall camp. “Until you get some games under your belt you’re not quite sure ‘cause a lot of the kids haven’t played significant snaps.
“I think Alex (Givens) has performed well. Greg Little’s performed well. Rod Taylor’s performed well. Michael Howard I really like. He needs to gain some weight; don’t know if he’ll be quite ready this year. And the guys that have played snaps for us — (Robert) Conyers and Sean (Rawlings), Javon (Patterson), Daronte (Bouldin) and Jordan (Sims) — are right there. The young guys look good. I think we’ve got a good class.”
Givens is currently running with the first team in place of Tunsil at left tackle, though he’s being pushed by veteran Taylor, who's moved over to tackle after two years spent at guard, and former five-star Greg Little. Little was rated the No. 1 tackle int he country out of high school by Scout.com.
In all, Ole Miss returns 36 career starts. Conyers was the team’s starting center five games last season before tearing his ACL in a loss at Memphis. Patterson started six games at both guard spots, while Sims played in every game at right guard. Rawlings started the first seven games at right tackle while Tunsil was sidelined due to an NCAA suspension.
The ‘X’ factor could be Taylor. A former four-star prospect, Taylor was slotted as a starter this time a year ago, but an off-the-field shoulder injury limited him all year. He’s running with the second team behind Givens, though he has experience at both left and right guard, too.
“He’s an athletic kid,” Freeze said. “Probably easier for him to learn there. It’s not quite as much going on as guard. I think between Alex and Rod and Greg and Sean we’ve got four pretty good guys. Once we get Jeremy (Liggins) back it gives us a fifth one. I think we’ve got some potential there.”
A positive sign for the group is it has held its own against a talented and deep Ole Miss defensive line so far in practices. So much so, Freeze said neither side — offense and defense — has gotten a leg up on the other.
“Typically I would say the defense is ahead, but I’ve been pleased with a large portion of our offensive performance against them, particularly with the ones,” he said. “Chad really has picked up kind of where he left off at the end of fall. I think we’ve done some really nice things offensively. Defensively, they’ve had their moments, too, where they’ve dominated different pods in practice. It’s been a pretty good battle thus far.”
Ole Miss was in full pads for the second time this week on Thursday. Freeze said two-a-day practices being tomorrow before the coaching staff scales back with walk-throughs and Meet the Rebels day on Saturday.
“Gotta push through these next three,” he said.
Injury to Pack a Concern?
The Rebels have been rather fortunate on the injury front, though Freeze is concerned about junior wide receiver Markell Pack.
Pack recently suffered a setback with a tendon in his hand. He is being withheld from practices, and there’s no timetable for a return. Pack was sixth on the team with 31 catches and 380 receiving yards last season. He scored three touchdowns.
“Today’s really the first day we’ve had anybody out,” Freeze said. “It’s just little things, but we’ve got several out today. (DaMarkus) Lodge took a hit yesterday on his head. Just precautionary, making sure he’s good. Markell Pack’s got a tendon issue going on in his hand. That’s probably the most concerning, if there’s one that’s concerning and could be a lengthy period of time, that’s probably the one that concerns me the most. C.J. Moore’s just got a strain in his pec, and (Terry) Caldwell has a sprained ankle.”
Freeze said he’s confident in his wide receivers corps, even if Pack has to miss time. The Rebels signed a trio of four-star wideouts in February: A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and Tre Nixon.
“We’d have to do some moving around,” Freeze said. “Van (Jefferson) has had an outstanding camp. Quincy (Adeboyejo) gives us a lot of flexibility because he’s played inside a lot. He could do that. We’d just have to see. It would take some adjustment, but we feel good about our receivers.”
Not all injury news was negative. Senior defensive end Fadol Brown started running yesterday, after missing all of spring and the first few days of camp with a foot injury, and senior safety Tony Conner has looked like his old self. Conner was shelved with a knee injury suffered against Alabama last September.
“Yesterday it was a little tender but not bad,” Freeze said of Brown. “He’ll run again today, and I think the plan is hopefully for him to do (individual drills) on Sunday. We’ll know more after we get him out here and start cutting him some.”
“We’ve got a plan in place (for Conner). I think we’re holding him out today, not because anything’s happened, but we’re managing him and Conyers and Fadol. Those are three we’ve got to kind of manage. With the knee injuries that Conyers and Tony have suffered, we just want to make sure we manage them in a way that gives them the best chance to have a successful, sustainable year.”
Freeze quick hitters:
On the cornerbacks: “Jalen Julius, Carlos Davis, Tony Bridges, Ken Webster, Kailo Moore, Jaylon Jones. Those are the six guys that are getting the reps. There’s been some big plays given up, where some of that you give to some receiver play that I think’s been good. Some (plays) their technique has to be more consistent in all of them. But I do think Jalen is going to be a player. Carlos has come on. Jaylon Jones is going to be a player. Of course we know Tony and Ken Webster have had a lot of reps, and you expect those two to be leaders back there.”
On the backup tight ends: “Taz (Zettergren) and Ty (Quick) know exactly what to do. Those young ones have the potential to be really good. Octavious Cooley, if he can handle the mental curve of learning everything that goes on at that position, he has the talent to be a special one. No doubt he has the physique and the athletic ability to be, arguably, the best we’ve had since I’ve been here, all-around. He’s not Evan (Engram) in running routes, but he has the potential to be maybe more suited to do maybe everything.”
On transfer linebacker Rommel Mageo: “Rommel’s a quick learner. I think the speed to which we play may be a little different than how he’s been used to practicing. There’s been some adjustment to that, but we’re excited about him. I love him as a kid. I think he’s a tremendous leader, and he’s going to get us lined up right, get his cleats in the ground and play extremely hard.”
On Josiah Coatney: “He gets better every day. Every day. Coming off that knee injury, we knew it’d be a process. But every day he starts flashing a little more.”
On the status of Jeremy Liggins: “I don’t know. I’m expecting (him to return) probably towards the end of camp. But I try to stay out of some things that are not really my giftedness; normally get some others to help me with that. But he’s starting to work out with the strength staff either today or tomorrow. Hopefully that will happen sooner than later.”
On Myles Hartsfield: “He’s been running with the ones, mostly. We’re rotating that quite a bit; a lot of rotation there. But I look up a lot of times and they depend on him. Being here in the spring really helped him. He’s a very athletic kid.”