Ole Miss Running Backs
As most anyone who follows College Football will know, Hugh Freeze stepped down as the head coach at Ole Miss last Thursday afternoon. This, of course, changes the entire outlook of the season. Although the situation is about as bleak as it can be for a college program, there are some positives that Ole Miss fans can take away. While Freeze is gone, the rest of the coaching staff is still intact. Matt Luke will serve as interim head coach for the 2017 season. Most importantly, Ole Miss will still have some big time recruits playing for them this season. One of the positions with those recruits? The Ole Miss running backs group.
While new offensive coordinator Phil Longo is primarily an air raid coach, he has emphasized his willingness to run the football as much as necessary. In 2014 and 2015, while Longo was serving as offensive coordinator at Sam Houston State, the Bearkats averaged about 245 yards rushing a game. This proves that while Longo believes in an air raid passing attack, he will call whatever play is necessary to win a game. As Ole Miss squandered two 20+ point leads in 2016, running the ball in ball control situations will undoubtedly be emphasized in fall camp.
From 2012 through 2016, Ole Miss ranked 46th, 24th, 33rd, 12th, and 19th in the FBS in passing yards per game. However, running the ball has provided much more of a challenge. In 2016, the Rebels ranked 103rd in rushing yards per game. That has to change if Ole Miss is to compete and win week in and week out in the SEC. Coaching should not get in the way of the running game. The question is, how much will the run game improve with the current stable of backs?
Leading the Pack
In the depth chart that Ole Miss released during the week of SEC Media Days, seniors Jordan Wilkins and Eugene Brazley were listed as the top two at running back. Wilkins enters 2017 after missing all of 2016 due to academic eligibility issues. He has prototypical size for a running back and is listed at 6-1, 217. Wilkins is the leading rusher on the team compiling 740 yards and five touchdowns through 2014 and 2015. Ole Miss fans will also remember the beautiful touchdown pass he threw to Cody Core in the 2014 Egg Bowl. Along with his size, he also possesses speed that you normally would not expect a 217 pound back to have. This will also allow Wilkins to contribute as a kick returner. Coaches have raved about his focus through spring camp and is the clear cut first option at the position.
Brazley is a very experienced player and will be a very reliable second option at running back. He is a smaller back (5-9 192) with a low center of gravity. Brazley is probably the most versatile back for the Rebels. Along with the 611 yards he has compiled on the ground over his career, he also has 128 yards catching the ball out of the backfield.
Once you get past Brazley and Wilkins, the rest of the backfield is somewhat of an unknown. The most experienced back that returns, outside of Brazley and Wilkins, is sophomore D’Vaughn Pennamon. He is the very definition of a power back and is listed at 5-11, 238. As a true freshman in 2016, Pennamon carried the ball 20 times for 63 yards and a touchdown. His development will be a key factor in the quality of depth Ole Miss will have at the position.
Two more players that will factor into the rotation are Eric Swinney (RS So.) and D.K. Buford (RS Jr.). Swinney is a back that coaches were excited about in the 2015 and 2016 preseasons but has had multiple injuries. In 2015, Swinney was redshirted after suffering an injury in fall camp. In 2016, he tore his ACL on his first carry against Florida State. Buford has very little experience but is said to have impressive speed for a 230 pound back.
In this spring’s recruiting class, Ole Miss signed one running back, Isaiah Woullard. He was rated as either a two or three star prospect depending on the recruiting service. Woullard has drawn comparisons to former Mississippi State running back, Josh Robinson, due to his “bowling ball” style of play and the fact that he was not a top prospect for bigger programs. Woullard will most likely redshirt this season. Ole Miss was being heavily considered by the top running back in the class of 2017, Cam Akers. Akers, a native of Mississippi, eventually signed with Florida State.
In a pass-happy offense, the running back position does not have to carry as much of the load as it would at schools like Stanford, LSU, or Wisconsin but their importance should not be undervalued. At Ole Miss, this position group has the potential to turn a really good offense into an elite one. The offensive line is both experienced and deep. As long as the top three backs stay healthy, there will be plenty of talent and experience to rely on.