The spring practice period was a little shorter for Ole Miss with no spring game due to facility renovations; however, it gave some young and inexperienced guys an opportunity to get some solid reps.
And the Rebels’ head coach Hugh Freeze sees that as a positive, following the loss of 19 players to either graduation or the NFL Draft. Losing key players of the caliber of Fahn Cooper, Trae Elston, Mike Hilton, C.J. Johnson, Robert Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell, Jaylen Walton, Justin Bell and others cannot be a good feeling for a head coach.
“That is a loss,” Freeze said in Thursday’s teleconference. “But as you know in this league, we are not the first to experience that. It happens to all of us and the goal is to consistently recruit quality players that you can replace when you lose those good ones. We have had four solid years of recruiting,” he noted.
Hugh Freeze on Ole Miss depth
And that’s where recruiting comes into play.
Solid recruits needed to step in, add depth to 2016 Rebels
Freeze and his staff addressed some of the team’s weaker spots with the 2016 signing class that was headlined by quarterback Shea Patterson, wide receivers A.J. Brown, Tre Nixon, and D.K. Metcalf, offensive lineman Greg Little and defensive tackle Benito Jones.
Patterson got a lot of reps this spring, along with redshirt freshman Jason Pellerin, after senior quarterback Chad Kelly had sports hernia surgery that sidelined him for the final two weeks of practices. Jones, a Waynesboro, Mississippi native, is another talented incoming freshman who received a lot of reps and will be looked at to fill the void left by Nkemdiche.
Ole Miss’ key returnees
In addition to the slew of freshmen becoming a part of the Ole Miss football family, Freeze does have some reliable key assets returning from last season’s 10-3 Sugar Bowl winning team.
On the offensive side, wide receivers Quincy Adeboyejo and Damore’ea Stringfellow will be looked upon to fill the void left by Treadwell, who was the only receiver last season in the Southeastern Conference to have 1,000 receiving yards.
Evan Engram is the top tight end on the roster and was a lot of help for newcomers Gabe Angel, Octavious Cooley and Jacob Mathis during the spring.
Robert Conyers, Jordan Sims, Rod Taylor, Javon Patterson and Sean Rawlings are the top offensive linemen and have the most experience following the departure of all five of last season’s starters.
On the defensive side, Fadol Brown and Marquis Haynes return to anchor the defensive end position for the Landsharks. A healthy Isaac Gross, along with Breeland Speaks and senior D.J. Jones, will be the leaders at the defensive tackle position. DeMarquis Gates, who recorded 76 tackles last season, is a strong player at the linebacker position, and Terry Caldwell, who was the only other returning linebacker to make a start last season, will also be looked upon to make a big defensive impact.
The return of Tony Conner
And then there’s the safety/huskie position. Who will step in? Tony Conner.
Conner is a three-year starter at Huskie. He missed most of the 2015 season hampered by a knee injury and missed all of spring while recovering from the knee injury he suffered during the team’s 43-37 win over Alabama.
But there’s good news.
“I am really excited about the reports I’m getting from our medical staff on him and our training staff,” Freeze said. “He started running, I think, two weeks ago. There’s been no sign of irritation or swelling after those workouts. Just really excited.
“It was really obvious after the Alabama win when we lost him, C.J. Johnson and Issac Gross, our defense was not the same for the remainder of the year. So to get him back—a healthy Tony Conner—would make a huge, huge difference in our defense.”
(Feature image credit: Amanda Swain, The Rebel Walk)