OXFORD, Miss. – Head coach Matt Luke officially kicked off Ole Miss spring practices with a press conference Tuesday afternoon in the Manning Center. With spring football underway, Luke and the Rebels have some critical areas to fill on both sides of the football, most notably at running back and linebacker.
The Rebels will have to somehow find a way to replace Jordan Wilkins, an experienced back who led the team in rushing last season with 1,011 yards and nine touchdowns on 155 carries. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry and also had 26 receptions on 241 receiving yards.
Wilkins was not only a seasoned runner, but he was also a key option in the backfield who ran with ferocity on every down. When defenses wanted to take the Rebels’ running game away, offensive coordinator Phil Longo was able to use Wilkins in the passing game, thanks to Wilkins’ receiver-like hands.
Although Ole Miss must fill the void left by Wilkins, the good news is Coach Luke will have options in the form of returnees D’Vaughn Pennamon, D.K. Buford and Eric Swinney, and newcomers Scottie Phillips and Isaiah Woullard.
Though D’Vaughn Pennamon and D.K. Buford are both expected to contribute at the position, each will sit out of spring practices due to injuries.
Pennamon, a junior, was second on the team in rushing last season with 217 yards on 53 carries in 11 games of action. Buford, the only senior in the running backs room, has played in 32 games as a reserve running back and on special teams. He rushed for 135 yards on 25 carries.
Swinney is another talented back with a great deal of potential. He, too, has had to overcome injuries; in 2016, he was forced to undergo season-ending surgery following a torn ACL on his very first running play in the team’s season-opener against Florida State.
Last season, Swinney injured his left knee in the first half of Ole Miss’ season opener against South Alabama, causing him to miss the rest of the season.
Newcomers Scottie Phillips and Isaiah Woullard enrolled in January and will participate in spring camp, though Phillips will only see limited action due to injury.
Phillips, a transfer from Jones County Junior College, was the top-rated junior college running back in the nation, helping the Bobcats average 261 yards per game on the ground while himself rushing for 1,070 yards and 13 touchdowns. His 1,070 rushing yards ranked third in the state and 12th in the NJCAA.
Woullard is the all-time leading rusher in Mississippi high school history with 8,294 career yards. He averaged 230 rushing yards per game (2,761 total) while reaching the end zone 36 times. Averaging nearly nine yards per carry, Woullard ran for 100 yards in every game of his senior season, including nine 200-yard games.
Coach Luke announced Tuesday that Armani Linton has moved from defensive back to running back, adding further depth to the position.
The first question for the Rebels at linebacker is who will replace DeMarquis Gates? He led the team in tackles each of the last two years, finishing the 2017 season with 114 total tackles from his middle linebacker position.
On Tuesday, Coach Luke noted that Detric-Bing Dukes and Willie Hibbler will start in the middle, but he also mentioned the Rebels will look at Mohamed Sanogo, Josh Clarke, and Zikerrion Baker, with Donta Evans also getting some reps during spring camp.
Coach Luke said the Rebels will be “focused on players, not plays,” meaning he and his staff want many of the younger guys to get reps over the course of the spring.
Four signees in the 2018 class–Jacquez Jones, Jonathan Hess, Luke Knox, and Kevontae’ Ruggs–will be newcomers to the linebackers room, but will not be on campus and available to work with the team until fall camp.
One of the bright spots this season should be Bing-Dukes. He’s now the most experienced linebacker on the roster, having played 22 games over the last two seasons. He currently has 65 tackles and three tackles for a loss of eight yards in his career with Ole Miss, and he will be looked at to produce and lead the Rebels on the field.
Additional injury notes
Out for spring: Coach Luke announced Tuesday additional players who will be out for spring camp, as well as some who will see limited action. On offense, in addition to Buford and Pennamon, players out for all of spring will be Dawson Knox and Eli Johnson. Defensively, Austrian Robinson, Benito Jones, and Qaadir Sheppard will be out for the spring.
Luke said the following players are out for spring practice due to injury: Knox, Buford, Pennamon, Eli Johnson, Austrian Robinson, Benito Jones, Qaadir Sheppard.
— The Rebel Walk (@TheRebelWalk) February 27, 2018
Limited action in spring: Those on offense who will see limited duty due to injury are: Alex Givens, DeMarcus Gregory (knee), Scottie Phillips and Sean Rawlings (lower back). Defensively, Ken Webster (groin) and C.J. Miller (rib) will be limited, with Coach Luke noting that Webster and Miller will only participate in non-contact drills.
Luke says the following will be limited in spring practice due to injury: Alex Givens, Demarcus Gregory, Scottie Phillips, Sean Rawlings, Ken Webster, C.J. Miller.
— The Rebel Walk (@TheRebelWalk) February 27, 2018
In addition to Armani Linton moving to the offensive side of the ball, Coach Luke announced other position changes. Vernon Dasher, who is listed as a linebacker, will play at the Star position (outside linebacker/hybrid position), while Brendan Williams will move from linebacker to defensive end.
(Video credit: Courtney Smith, The Rebel Walk)