Ole Miss is looking to add some depth a multiple positions this spring, but with sophomore running backs I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton backing up senior Jeff Scott, the Rebel ground game is in good hands.
Sophomores I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton both arrived on campus as celebrated running back recruits who were poised to play early in light of the lack of depth at the position for Ole Miss coming into last season.
Each played and got their feet wet in back up duty to senior running back Jeff Scott. Walton electrified the Vaught-Hemingway Stadium crowd with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Texas. Mathers showed his potential with a 62-yard touchdown run late against Pittsburgh in the Compass bowl.
However, like young running backs do, they struggled with learning their pass protection assignments. Now, each is a year older and a year smarter in head coach Hugh Freeze’s system.
“I try to block correctly, I try to pick up on assignments, all the little things I try to do them right,” Walton said.
Mathers agreed that the extra bowl practices and this spring have helped him learn the playbook.
“I learned a lot of plays during the bowl week, watched extra film,” Mathers said. “I feel like I know the offense a whole lot better than last year.”
For young running backs, the extra practices and reps a bowl game brings can be huge in their progression. It’s easy to see so far this spring that the bowl practices have benefitted Mathers and Walton; they’ll even tell you as much. Now, it is important that they continue that progression into the offseason.
“The offseason is really important because you got to recover from previous injuries, get back in the weight room and get strong, get your body back in shape,” Walton said. “It’s just what it’s all about.”
While Walton’s quickness and speed are what separates him from other players, Mathers is looked to be more of a traditional running back, who can run between the tackles. He’s used the offseason to get more comfortable and put some extra weight on his 5-foot-11 frame.
“Extra film, looking back through my notes from the fall,” Mathers said on what he’s been doing in the offseason. “Probably gained five pounds.
“I feel like I’m the guy that can run between the tackles. Coach Freeze and (running backs) coach (Derrick) Nix just want me to look at the chains and pick up first downs.”
As far as the running back group as a whole, it will need Mathers and Walton to each bring something different to the table, if it is to be effective. Walton won’t be looked to pick up the tough yards inside like Mathers, but instead, he will be needed in a role similar to Scott, a home run hitter and effective receiver out of the backfield.
“We compete everyday because we know we all have a chance of doing something big with the ball,” Walton said. “Everyone fits in well because we have different styles.”
Although they still have a lot of area for improvement before the Rebels’ season-opener again Vanderbilt on Aug. 29, Freeze spoke highly of the two young running backs in Monday night’s practice.
“Don’t think we missed on either one of them in recruiting,” Freeze said. “Think we got two good ones for the future, and I think they’re progressing nicely.”
For continuing coverage of Ole Miss football, follow @JLgrindin and @thedm_sports on Twitter.