Depth has been talked about at length as being the main issue keeping Ole Miss from competing with the elite teams in the Southeastern Conference, but one area where they should rank among the league’s best is on special teams.
Last season, Rebel head coach Hugh Freeze elected to redshirt two seniors in punter Tyler Campbell and kicker Andrew Ritter.
Now, as Ole Miss heads into year two, they have experience in that key area.
Campbell has been one of the nation’s top punters his entire career, averaging 44.6 yards per punt. He finished the 2010 season first in average with a 46.4 mark. In 2011, he improved on his accuracy and downed 28 punts inside the 20.
Ritter is expected to be the kickoff man for the Rebels, which he’s done his entire career, as well as be a consistent place kicker. He has yet to attempt a field goal in his career in Oxford, but he has a strong enough leg to put points on the board from long distances. However, accuracy will be a key, and he will need to improve in that area from his performance in the spring.
On kickoffs, Ritter should be consistent as he’s been during his career. He has totaled 12 touchbacks in each of his previous three years.
If Ritter struggles at either job, freshman Andy Pappanastos and sophomore Nathan Noble should get a look. Pappanastos is a newcomer from Montgomery, Ala., while Noble had 11 touchbacks in five games last season.
The Rebels will also be in good hands at long snapper and holder. Junior Will Denny and senior Chris Conley return for their third year as a consistent long snapper-holder duo.
In the return game, Ole Miss has a lot of potential candidates, but the most likely guy to have his job back is sophomore Jaylen Walton. The 5-foot-8, 167-pounder had 26 kick returns last year, totaling 643 yards, which is good enough for a 24.7 average. Walton’s biggest highlight came on a 100-yard kickoff return against Texas.
The leading punt returner is senior Korvic Neat. However, Neat did not present a threat, averaging just 5.1 yards per return in 16 attempts.
Senior Jeff Scott is a guy that you could see at both kickoff and punt return. Last year, Freeze was reluctant to use Scott on special teams due to depth issues, but with the progression of Walton and sophomore I’Tavius Mathers at running back, Scott could get an opportunity in the return game. In 2011, Scott averaged 17.2 yards in eight punt returns and 17.7 yards on 14 kick returns.
Other candidates are Mathers and sophomore Carlos Davis, who is suspended for the first six games. It remains to be seen who of the newcomers will get a look. Guys like running back Mark Dodson, wide receiver Quadarias Mireles and running back Kailo Moore could be potential candidates to contribute.
Ole Miss is in good shape as far as special teams go, and it could make the difference in a game or two this season.
Freeze mentioned at SEC Media Days on Tuesday that having Campbell could make junior quarterback Bo Wallace realize gambles aren’t worth taking at times, so that alone shows his presence could be a game changer.
I think Campbell will be as good as he always has been, but Ritter may have some struggles. Last season, Bryson Rose struggled more with his accuracy while he was also doing kickoff duties. If Ritter has that same struggle, look for either Noble to take over kickoff duties or Pappanastos to handle field goal kicking, so Ritter can concentrate on one task.
Walton will be a dynamic threat on kick returns, and it will interesting to see if he can get involved on punt returns. Last season, he never got a shot there, so he may not be comfortable catching the punts. However, an entire offseason to work on that could make all the difference.
I would be surprised if Neat is the one returning punts extensively this season. He just never showed the ability to be a home run threat and had some costly mistakes just catching the ball.
A lot of factors will go into finding someone who can be that threat, but the Rebels now have multiple skill players to chose from and the added depth shouldn’t make using a guy on special teams that big of a deal.
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