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Ole Miss returns perhaps the most feared offensive unit in the Southeastern Conference, mostly because of senior quarterback Chad Kelly and a group of pass catchers talented enough to have the Rebels in the conversation to be “Wide Receiver U.” However, with two proven rushers returning to the backfield this fall, look for balance to make the Rebel offense even more formidable in 2016. Akeem Judd and Jordan Wilkins delivered punishment in the Egg Bowl last November and they will look to pick that back up this season.
Jaylen Walton, the face of the rushing attack for the last few season, is gone and so are his 730 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns from a season ago. Walton averaged 5.1 yards per carry and 60.8 yards per game in 2015-16. He provided the potential for a score each time he touched the ball, especially catching passes out of the backfield, but he often struggled to find yards in the middle of the field.
So much so, Kelly was the most effective ball-carrier at times a season ago. In fact, Kelly was the primary option, not named Robert Nkemdiche or Jeremy Liggins, in goal line situations where Dan Werner and Matt Luke’s group has had trouble in recent years.
In fact, Kelly’s 10 rushing touchdowns led the team, and were just two behind the total of Walton, Wilkins and Judd combined. Though, the rugged and durable signal-caller was able to carry the load, he did take some vicious hits along the way. Keeping Kelly upright will be priority number one in 2016 and that starts with the running backs doing their job.
With more carries it is expected Wilkins and Judd will improve on their 379 and 421 rushing yards, respectively, from last year. Although each toted it for more than five yards a pop, there will be more responsibility this season. With that being said, though, the depth should be improved.
After nipping at the heels of the veterans this Spring, redshirt freshman Eric Swinney is in line for carries this season and is expected to do big things with said opportunities. Additionally, redshirt junior Eugene Brazley should be the scat-back of the group, providing that home run play ability that Walton produced.
Replacing both the left and right tackle along the offensive line is a concern when it comes to the passing game, but as it pertains to the running back, the offensive line could prove to be a strength, mostly because guards Javon Patterson and Jordan Sims will be the anchors of the big men up front. With strength and athleticism in front of Judd, Wilkins and Swinney, there should be holes to hit.
Also of note, there is depth along the offensive line for Ole Miss, which should help the backs as they try to deliver punishment and close games out in the fourth quarter. Whether it be sealing a victory or being the difference in winning the battle of possession, the Rebel running backs will be fresh and so will their blockers.
Beyond the offensive line, depth at the tight end position will be key for the Rebels’ running game, too. It has been talked about often this offseason, but with a greater number of serviceable and versatile tight ends loaded up on the roster now, Hugh Freeze is likely to implement more double tight-end sets. It was a formation he found great success with in his time at Arkansas State. Not only would it give running backs more blockers to run behind in power run situations, but if the passing game is effective from the formation, it could open up holes for big-time runs when the timing is right.
With many factors coming into play, the main ingredient will unquestionably be the ability of Judd, Wilkins and Swinney. They must make the plays, instead of making excuses. That is something that each of them have shown the talent to be able to do. Even when the holes were wide or the blocking wasn’t perfect last season, Judd seemed to be able to make something of each of his carries. The running game felt different when he carried the rock.
Furthermore, Wilkins’ carries had a different feel to them at the end of last season, as well. Despite having a knack for game-breaking plays in his career, Wilkins had struggled to find consistency prior to the end of 2015. However, if last year’s momentum carries into this fall, look out, because the Rebel offense will not only be known for its receivers, it’ll have a two-headed running attack that would make any SEC team envious.
Then there’s that bright light coming through at the end of the tunnel. Sure, that was a cheesy way to say it, but the future is bright at the position for the Rebels. Eric Swinney, a Sandy Creek, Georgia, native, appears set on making his presence felt this fall, but stardom is almost certainly in his future. He possess a combination of power, speed and explosion, that are a perfect match for Freeze’s offensive scheme. Those skills, and that fit, are what made him such a coveted prospect at the position for Freeze and running backs coach Derrick Nix.
But Freeze and Nix are back at it just as hard in the 2017 class. Mississippi’s top prospect, Cam Akers, is likely to land in Oxford. He is not only one of the best running back recruits in his class, but one of the best to come out of Mississippi in a long while. That’s not all, though, as the Rebels are also in hot pursuit of legacy target Ty Chandler of Nashville, Tennessee, whose father, Chico, played for Ole Miss from 1998-2002.
For Ole Miss fans, there is excitement for what the offense can look like with an effective running game. However, with the talent that is on the roster and the caliber of prospects making their way to the backfield in Oxford, Rebel fans might not have to settle for effective. The running attack is trending upward at Ole Miss, just the latest area to be doing just that under the leadership of Freeze.
John Luke covers all sports for The Rebel Walk and also writes about high school football for the Southern Elite Sports network, most frequently for SES Mississippi. John Luke is from Tupelo and is the Host of The Buzz on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2-3 p.m. on 95.1 FM in Tupelo. He is also a frequent co-host of Mississippi Sports Today with Craig Horton on ESPN 96.3 FM, The Ticket, from 7-9 a.m. in Tupelo.