Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze takes the dais Thursday morning on the final day of SEC Football Media Days. No doubt he will be asked many interesting questions; however, The Rebel Walk has three we believe will be critical for Ole Miss to answer in order to be successful in the tough Southeastern Conference Western Division this coming season.
1. Who will replace Bo Wallace?
Bo Wallace will not be behind center this season for Ole Miss, and head coach Hugh Freeze soon must choose who will step in and lead the Rebels. He will need to replace a signal-caller who threw for 3,194 yards and 22 touchdowns last season. For all of Wallace’s critics, the fact remains he left Ole Miss with 24 career wins in 38 starts, as well as six career records: total offensive yards (10,478); passing efficiency (140.8); completion percentage (63 percent); yards per attempt (8.04); 300-yard passing games (11); and, total plays (1,544).
You can bet the media in attendance in Hoover, Alabama will ask the Rebels’ coach plenty of questions about his choice of a starting QB. Freeze has three very solid quarterbacks from which to choose: JUCO transfer Chad Kelly, sophomore Ryan Buchanan, and sophomore DeVante Kincade.
Ryan Buchanan: At the end of spring practices, Coach Freeze indicated Ryan Buchanan held a slight lead over the other quarterbacks. The 6-foot-3 quarterback from Jackson, Miss. (Jackson Prep) did play in all thirteen of the Rebels’ games last year–but not a great deal of experience came along with it as he finished the season 12-of-22 passing for 75 yards with an interception. He rushed for 18 yards on three carries.
DeVante Kincade: The 6-foot, dual-threat quarterback from Dallas (Skyline High School) played in eight games last season for Ole Miss, completing 16-of-20 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown. Kincade also rushed for 95 yards on 26 carries and a touchdown.
Chad Kelly: Kelly’s name has been floating around as the potential starter for the Rebels’ season opener against Tennessee-Martin. Coming out of East Mississippi Community College, the 6-foot-2 quarterback had completed 66.9 percent of his passes and threw for 3,906 yards with 47 touchdowns–and only eight interceptions. He also rushed for 446 yards and four touchdowns.
Freeze on the QBs
During the SEC Spring Football Media Teleconference, Freeze suggested junior college transfer Chad Kelly is “actually a little ahead” of where the coach thought he would be at quarterback going into the spring. “I was impressed with his football IQ and the way he came in and studies things,” Freeze noted. “He picked up things nicely and had really good practices.”
But with respect to determining a starting QB, Freeze said he will watch all three of his quarterbacks to see “who can manage the drives” and “who can make the difficult throws.” He wants a quarterback who understands what the staff wants him to do–and who will run the team and put points on the board. “I don’t think that will be decided until well into fall camp,” Freeze said. The bottom line, he added, is: “Whoever is most consistent is probably going to be the guy.”
Whomever Freeze picks will have to be ready for a brutal season in the Southeastern Conference Western Division.
2) Will the running game be more prolific?
For the Rebels to win the Western Division of the SEC, they will need to produce a more consistent run game in 2015.
Walton was the Rebels’ best producer at the running back position last season, rushing for 586 yards on 106 carries and scoring five touchdowns. The 5-foot-eight ball carrier averaged 5.5 yards per carry.
Whoever the Rebel quarterback is, he will look to give Walton as many touches as possible since the speedy Memphis native has proven he has the ability to break tackles and outrun the opponents’ secondary.
The Rebels also have sophomore back Jordan Wilkins, who rushed for 42 yards on two carries and threw a 31-yard touchdown to wide receiver Cody Core in Ole Miss’ win over Mississippi State in the 2014 Egg Bowl. For the season, Wilkins tallied 361 yards on the ground for a 6.9 yards per carry average.
Throughout much of the season, Ole Miss struggled to find rhythm in its running game, mustering an average of 4.2 yards per carry. In the Rebels’ final game of the season, they rushed for just nine total yards against TCU in a 42-3 loss in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.
3) Will the offense be more proficient on 3rd and 4th downs?
For the 2014 season, Ole Miss converted on 39 percent (72 of 183) of its third downs and 45 percent (9 of 20) of fourth downs. The difference in these conversion rates in the Rebels’ wins versus their losses is quite dramatic. In its nine wins, the Rebels were 44 percent (56 for 127) on third downs and 67 percent (8 for 12) on fourth downs. In contrast, Ole Miss was a meager 19 percent (16 for 56) on third-downs and 12.5 percent (1 for 8) on fourth downs in its four losses.
As Ole Miss fans are well aware, the Rebels were just a couple of agonizing plays away last season from walking off the field in victory against LSU and Auburn. But the missed opportunities on third and fourth downs hindered an offense that averaged 419.1 yards per game last season. Having a more balanced offense will help increase the efficiency on third and fourth downs.
But, first things first. Rebels will need to wait and see which quarterback will be the starter: Buchanan, Kelly or Kincade. Stay tuned to The Rebel Walk for up to date information on what Coach Freeze has to say at SEC Media Days! Hotty Toddy!
(Feature image: Coach Hugh Freeze at the podium at the 2014 SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama. Photo credit: Evelyn Vanpelt, The Rebel Walk)