OXFORD, Miss. - Ole Miss hit the practice fields to officially open 2017 spring football drills on Tuesday.
The team will train throughout the month of March and into early April, culminating with the annual Regions Bank Grove Bowl on Saturday, April 8.
Head coach Hugh Freeze addressed the media prior to Tuesday's practice (see video above).
Among the top things to look for this spring are the return of senior running back Jordan Wilkins and sophomore running back Eric Swinney to help bolster the Rebels' rushing attack, senior defensive end Marquis Haynes leading the way for the defense, and sophomore Shea Patterson taking his next steps as the Rebels' signal caller.
Below is an outlook and position-by-position breakdown heading into spring ball.
2017 SPRING OUTLOOK
After Ole Miss made a bowl game and improved its win total in each of Hugh Freeze's first four seasons, the Rebels are looking to bounce back from a tough 2016 campaign and return to their winning ways.
The Rebels head into spring ball with a number of new faces on the coaching staff and will seek a renewed vigor following last fall's 5-7 season that saw Ole Miss upend nationally ranked Georgia at home and Texas A&M on the road.
New offensive coordinator Phil Longo has a lot to work with in order to keep the Rebels among the nation's most explosive and up-tempo units. Wesley McGriff returns to Freeze's staff, this time as defensive coordinator, and will look to immediately bring some extra passion and tenacity to spring drills. Other new members of the staff include Jacob Peeler (wide receivers), Bradley Dale Peveto (linebackers/special teams) and Freddie Roach (defensive line).
Ole Miss welcomes back 60 lettermen and 11 position starters from last season, including five starters on the offensive side and six on defense.
QUARTERBACKS • Shea Patterson returns after starting the final three games of his freshman season following Chad Kelly's ACL injury. • Patterson went 1-2 in those three contests, including a magical come-from-behind 29-28 win at No. 8 Texas A&M in his debut. • In three games, Patterson threw six TDs with three INTs and averaged 293.3 yards per outing. • Kelly finished his 22-game Rebel career with 25 school records. • Sophomore Jason Pellerin and JUCO transfer Jordan Ta'amu are expected to also compete for snaps behind center during spring drills ... Pellerin could see action at other positions, as well.
RUNNING BACKS • Leading rusher Akeem Judd (826 yards) graduated, leaving senior Jordan Wilkins, senior Eugene Brazley and sophomore Eric Swinney as the primary candidates to ascend to the top of the depth chart this spring. • Wilkins sat out the 2016 season, but rushed for 740 yards and five TDs in his first two seasons. • Brazley contributed 261 rushing yards and two TDs a year ago. • Swinney was lost to a season-ending injury in last year's opener and will return to limited, non-contact action this spring. • D.K. Buford and D'Vaughn Pennamon should provide depth. • Isaiah Woullard, the state of Mississippi's all-time leading high school rusher, will join the team in the fall.
WIDE RECEIVERS • Ole Miss returns eight lettermen from last season at the wide receiver position. • The Rebels have to replace full-time starters Damore'ea Stringfellow (NFL Draft early entrant) and Quincy Adeboyejo, who were Nos. 3 and 4 on the team in receiving yards, respectively. last year. • Top returners are sophomore Van Jefferson (who started every game last year and earned Freshman All-America honors), sophomore A.J. Brown, junior DaMarkus Lodge, senior Markell Pack and sophomore D.K. Metcalf, who combined for 10 TD catches last year. • Redshirt-freshman Tré Nixon, a highly rated 2016 signee, will look to contribute immediately.
TIGHT ENDS • Gone is first team All-American and statistically the best tight end in school history Evan Engram, who is the only four-time All-SEC pick in school history and finished his career with 162 receptions, 2,320 receiving yards and 15 TD catches. • Ole Miss will turn to sophomores Octavious Cooley and Dawson Knox and redshirt-freshmen Jacob Mathis and Gabe Angel to try to replace some of Engram's production. • Mathis will sit out spring drills with a broken foot. • Senior Ty Quick provides depth.
OFFENSIVE LINE • Ole Miss returns four of five starters from last year's O-line and several others who earned starts and significant snaps throughout the season. • Returning starters include Rod Taylor (left tackle), Javon Patterson (left guard), Jordan Sims (right guard) and Sean Rawlings (right tackle). • Others who started games last year were Freshman All-America tackle Greg Little (5), tackle Alex Givens (5) and guard Daronte Bouldin (4). • Ole Miss has the luxury of several versatile athletes along the line ... Patterson has seen action at guard and center, Rawlings at tackle and center, Taylor at tackle and guard. • The only starter lost from last year was center Robert Conyers. • The Rebels' O-line depth is bolstered by redshirt-freshmen Eli Johnson, Bryce Mathews, Royce Newman and Chandler Tuitt, and incoming freshmen Ben Brown and Tony Gray.
LINEBACKERS • The Rebels return seven lettermen from last year's linebacker corps. • Senior DeMarquis Gates, who led the team with 76 tackles in 2015 and 79 in 2016, is the lone returning starter and has played on both the inside and outside. • Junior Detric Bing-Dukes (41 tackles) and senior Tayler Polk (34) are the next top returning linebackers in terms of production. • Ole Miss will look for an immediate boost to this group from JUCO transfer Brenden Williams and early enrollee Breon Dixon, a 4-star prospect from the same high school as the Nkemdiche brothers. • Others expected to compete for playing time this spring include senior Ray Ray Smith, sophomore Willie Hibbler and redshirt-freshman Donta Evans. • Ole Miss signed four more linebackers that will join the team this fall - Zikerrion Baker, Josh Clarke, Chester Graves and Mohamed Sanogo.
SAFETIES • The Rebels lose four-year starter Tony Conner from the defensive backfield, but return all seven other safeties who saw action last fall. • Returning starters include free safety Zedrick Woods (63 tackles) and Rover Myles Hartsfield (43 tackles), a Freshman All-America pick. • Others with extensive experience include sophomore Deontay Anderson, senior A.J. Moore, junior C.J. Moore (who missed the 2016 season with injury) and senior C.J. Hampton. • Signees A.J. Harris, C.J. Miller and Kam'ron White will join the team this fall.
CORNERBACKS • Ole Miss lost four senior cornerbacks from last year, but still return a load of young experience that provides promise for this season. • Sophomore Jaylon Jones was a Freshman All-America pick after securing 26 tackles and five pass breakups. • Sophomore Jalen Julius started eight games, and senior Ken Webster, a full-time starter in 2015, returns after injuring his knee against Florida State last year ... Webster will sit out spring drills. • Depth will be provided by Montrell Custis, Cam Ordway and JUCO transfer Javien Hamilton. • Four-star signee D.D. Bowie, who could contribute in several areas on the field, will join the team this fall.
SPECIALISTS • All-American Gary Wunderlich returns at placekicker after a great 2016 campaign in which he made 22 of 23 field goals and was crowned NCAA statistical champion in FG percentage (95.7). • Will Gleeson returns at punter, with Wunderlich also an option there. • The Rebels will need to replace departed long snapper Will Few and kickoff specialist Nathan Noble.
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