Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze has changed the culture of football in Oxford, but he has stated many times they still have to get the needed depth to compete for Southeastern Conference and national titles. However, the one position where there are plenty of talented players is running back.
The Rebels return three players that saw extended playing time in 2012 at running back, and with four freshmen looking to come in and make an impact, there are multiple options for Freeze and his staff.
Senior Jeff Scott is undoubtedly the top returner, as he racked up 846 rushing yards and six touchdowns last season. Scott is a big home run threat for Ole Miss, but injuries have limited him at times during his career. He will enter 2013 with 1,804 career yards on the ground and 15 rushing touchdowns. He also had 177 receiving yards and one touchdown last season.
Sophomores Jaylen Walton and I’Tavius Mathers both saw action in 2012 and are expected to take a big step forward this fall. Walton, a 5-foot-8, 167-pounder averaged 5.1 yards per carry last season, totaling 118 rushing yards and a touchdown. Mathers, a 5-foot-11, 196-pounder, racked up 208 yards on 27 carries (7.7 yards per carry) with a touchdown. Both should have a bigger role in the offense in their second year.
Incoming freshmen Mark Dodson, Kailo Moore, Jordan Wilkins and Eugene Brazley will be looking to make an impact in their first year, but it will interesting to see how the coaching staff decides to use them. Moore and Brazley could get a look at defensive back or slot receiver to get them on the field faster.
Dodson has a leg up on the other freshmen because he enrolled at Ole Miss in January and went through spring practice. He showed flashes that the coaching staff likes, and consistency should come with more reps. During his senior year of high school, Dodson had 3,295 rushing yards and 37 touchdowns to lead Whitehaven High School to the Tennessee 6A state championship. The Memphis native was also named the 2012 Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year.
Moore is another speedy back that could play multiple positions depending on the progression of other players. He rushed for 1,218 yards and 18 touchdowns his senior year at West Bolivar High School. Moore is also an elite sprinter on the track, claiming 11 state 2A championships during his high school career.
Wilkins could play the biggest role of the freshmen backs because of his size. The 6-foot-1, 210-poounder gives Ole Miss a big running back they haven’t had the past couple of years. However, it will be interesting to see if Wilkins has any hiccups with his knee that he injured, ending his senior season. Wilkins totaled 1,041 yards and 14 touchdowns in seven games his senior year.
Brazley may be the most likely to switch positions during his career at Ole Miss, as his size and speed make him a prime candidate to be a versatile weapon. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound New Orleans native rushed for 1,040 yards and 15 touchdowns in his senior year, while also racking up 279 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 18 receptions.
Junior Nick Parker is another name that could see his name called in short yardage situations if Mathers or Wilkins can’t be the big back Ole Miss needs. Parker dropped weight prior to last season, but the South Panola product has never shown the consistency to make an impact for Ole Miss. He’s someone to watch out for in August.
As fall camp rolls around, be on the look out for sophomore Darryan Ragsdale. The 5-foot-10, 183-pounder had a good spring and will be looking to break into the running back rotation this fall.
With senior Scott leading the charge and other smaller, speedy backs like Walton, Dodson, Moore and Brazley, Ole Miss has no problem putting speed on the field.
However, the Rebels are looking to have a bigger back to use as well to pick up short yardage situations, which hindered Ole Miss last year. Mathers needs to be the guy the coaching staff can trust to pick up the tough yards between the tackles, and a full year in the weight room with strength and conditioning coach Paul Jackson should have him ready to take the pounding of SEC football.
If Mathers is still struggling in that aspect, Wilkins and Parker will both have opportunities to make an impact, but Wilkins is a better candidate in my mind.
The biggest question mark will be where some of these guys end up. I ultimately see Moore and Brazley getting looks at slot receiver and defensive back. Brazley could be better suited for slot receiver, while Moore can use his speed to be a lockdown corner.
I also look for Scott to have a breakout senior year, even if the numbers don’t show it. His carries will be limited with Walton, Mathers and maybe Dodson getting multiple reps, but he will be fresher in the second half of games and can use that extra step to get around the edge for some big plays.
As far as redshirts go, Dodson could get one simply because the depth that is already there. He has the ability to make an impact in year one, but it will depend on how much faith the coaches have in Walton and Mathers to back up Scott. I think Wilkins plays because of his ability to run between the tackles. Either Moore or Brazley could get a redshirt as well, depending on where they land in fall camp.
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