Aug. 7, 2016
OXFORD, Miss. -- The 2016 Ole Miss football season is here as the Rebels kicked off fall camp Sunday (August 7). With the season opener in Orlando, Florida just 29 days away, Ole Miss has four weeks to prepare to face the Florida State Seminoles (Sept. 5, 7 p.m. CT, ESPN).
Ole Miss enters the 2016 season with an expectation level that has steadily risen over the tenure of head coach Hugh Freeze.
Freeze begins his fifth season at the helm of the Rebel program this fall and instead of fans hoping the team breaks through to success in the rugged Southeastern Conference Western Division, football fans and pundits now expect Ole Miss to remain one of the best squads in the league.
With its high-powered offense, tenacious defense and winning attitude, Ole Miss is making noise in college football that it hadn’t for decades. Just look at some of the Rebels’ recent achievements:
• 2016 Sugar Bowl Champions (first time since 1970)
• 34 wins over last four years (most since 1960-63)
• 17 SEC wins over last four years (most since 1997-00)
• 4 straight bowl appearances (first time since 1997-00)
• 27 straight weeks in top 25 (most since 1957-62)
• No. 3 ranking in 2014 and 2015 (highest since 1964)
• Beat No. 1 team in nation in 2014 (first time in history)
• Led NCAA in scoring defense in 2014 (first time since 1963)
• Beat Alabama 2 straight years (first time in school history)
• 5 wins over ranked teams in 2015 (most in school history)
• Top-10 final ranking in 2015 (first time since 1969)
• 64 school records broken in 2015
• 3 first-round NFL draft picks in 2016 (most in school history)
• Top-5 recruiting classes in 2013, 2016 (best in school history)
The Rebels dominated the SEC West last year, knocking off Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the same season for the first time, while also capturing their third Egg Bowl win over Mississippi State in the last four tries.
Despite losing first-round NFL draft picks Robert Nkemdiche (DT), Laquon Treadwell (WR) and Laremy Tunsil (OT), Ole Miss is expecting more of the same in its next chapter of the “New Norm” this season.
Chad Kelly, who produced one of the best seasons ever by an SEC quarterback last year, is back for his senior season. He will be surrounded by a plethora of playmakers and protectors on the offensive side of the ball, thanks in large part to the coaching staff’s recruiting efforts that have resulted in four straight top-15 signing classes, including the 2016 haul that ranked as high as No. 4 in the country.
The defense will be a bit younger than it was last season, but the depth of talent and speed this fall might be as good as Vaught-Hemingway Stadium will have ever seen.
Speaking of Vaught-Hemingway, the Rebels’ home venue will have a flashy new look this fall after the north end zone is bowled in and brand new sound system, lights and video boards are installed. The gameday atmosphere from the famous Grove to Hollingsworth Field keeps making its case for best in the nation.
Senior quarterback Chad Kelly returns to lead an Ole Miss offense that set fire to not only the school record books, but the SEC record books, in 2015.
Among the 64 school statistical records broken or tied last year were the most points (531), touchdowns (68), yards (6,731), passing yards (4,351), passing touchdowns (35) and first downs (341) in school history.
Kelly himself took down 17 school records, including the third-most passing yards (4,042) and total yards (4,542) in a season by any player in SEC history.
Battling for the backup role behind the SEC’s top returning signal-caller are redshirt-freshman Jason Pellerin and true freshman Shea Patterson, both of whom have coaches excited about the future of the team’s offense.
Two of Kelly’s primary targets from last year were taken in the NFL draft (Laquon Treadwell - first round - Minnesota Vikings, Cody Core - sixth round - Cincinnati Bengals), but there are plenty of threats remaining in the Rebels’ air attack.
All-American and three-time All-SEC tight end Evan Engram is back for his senior year. He is the all-time Ole Miss leader in catches (97) and yards (1,394) by a tight end and ranks fourth among all returning SEC players in career receiving yards. Providing depth behind Engram will be seniors Hunter Thurley and Taz Zettergren, while signees Gabe Angel, Octavious Cooley and Jacob Mathis hope to make an impact this fall.
The Rebels’ corps of wide receivers could be one of the best in the country, even without Treadwell and Core. Senior Quincy Adeboyejo (38 catches, 604 yards, 7 TDs) and junior Damore’ea Stringfellow (36 catches, 503 yards, 5 TDs) have big-play ability, like when Adeboyejo snagged a tipped Kelly pass out of the air and raced 66 yards to “tip six” glory in the Rebels’ win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
A big collection of playmakers and former elite-level high school recruits - all of whom stand at least 6-foot-2 tall - also includes senior Derrick Jones, junior Markell Pack, sophomore DaMarkus Lodge and redshirt-freshman Van Jefferson. The son of former NFL player and assistant coach Shawn Jefferson, Van stood out so much in spring ball that he is penciled in as the No. 1 slot receiver entering fall camp.
An intriguing storyline for the fall will be where blue-chip signees A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and Tre Nixon fit into the receiving corps. All three are superbly talented, but they may have to wait a year or two for their time to shine behind the loaded stable of veterans.
Senior Akeem Judd and junior Jordan Wilkins provide experience in the running game. Both have the size - Wilkins is 6-1, 215 and Judd is 5-11, 228 - and elusiveness to do well against tough SEC defenses. Coaches also expect redshirt-freshman Eric Swinney to be a factor this fall.
Ole Miss has to replace all five offensive line starters from the Sugar Bowl win over Oklahoma State - including NFL draft picks Laremy Tunsil (first round, Miami Dolphins) and Fahn Cooper (fifth round, San Francisco 49ers) - but the returning big men are not without talent and some experience.
Penciled in as the front-runners at left and right tackle are senior Jeremy Liggins, a converted quarterback/tight end, and Sean Rawlings, who made seven starts at right tackle a year ago. They will be pushed by redshirt-freshmen Alex Givens and Michael Howard. And look for elite signee Greg Little to have something to say about the starting tackle position once fall camp is underway.
Junior Rod Taylor and sophomores Javon Patterson and Jordan Sims have all been part-time starters at guard with plenty of SEC experience under their belts. Depth will be provided by junior Daronte Bouldin and potentially an incoming freshman or two from the nation’s No. 4 signing class.
Senior Robert Conyers, who can play center or tackle, is the top candidate to snap the ball to Kelly. He started five games at center last year before a torn ACL ended his campaign. Other centers battling for playing time are senior Jacob Feeley and true freshman Eli Johnson.
Every football coach loves to talk about team speed, and the Rebels have a lot of it, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Even if you start with the big guys along the defensive line, Ole Miss is fast. All-SEC junior defensive end Marquis Haynes might be one of the quickest players on the team, while interior linemen Breeland Speaks, D.J. Jones and Issac Gross have quick, explosive moves that can transport their bigger frames into opponents’ backfields at a scary pace.
Haynes tied the school record for most sacks in a season with 10 last year and is only getting better, according to his coaches. His cohorts on the ends will be returning starter senior Fadol Brown and Chucky Mullins Courage Award winner senior John Youngblood, while sophomore Victor Evans, sophomore Garrald McDowell, redshirt-freshman Shawn Curtis and true freshman Charles Wiley are all expected to contribute.
Holding down the middle will be Speaks, a sophomore, and seniors Jones and Gross. All three have started games at D-tackle. Production will also need to come from a slew of youngsters, including sophomore Ross Donelly, redshirt-freshman Austrian Robinson and blue-chip signee Benito Jones.
There’s more speed at the linebacker level, starting with junior DeMarquis Gates, who can play both inside and outside. He was the team’s leading tackler (76) as a part-time starter last season, and coaches rave about his work ethic and natural ability to pursue and tackle ball carriers. Oregon State graduate transfer Rommel Mageo is also expected to be a big contributor at Mike, while senior Temario Strong and redshirt-freshman Willie Hibbler should provide depth.
Along with Gates, the outside Stinger linebacker will be a battle between senior Terry Caldwell, juniors Tayler Polk and Ray Ray Smith, and junior college transfer Detric Bing-Dukes.
Do-it-all senior Tony Conner looks to return from injury and lead the Rebels in the secondary. The 2014 All-SEC safety plays the Huskie position, which requires him to be equally adept at both pass coverage and mixing it up at the line of scrimmage. He missed seven games due to a torn meniscus last season but has always had NFL scouts drooling over his talent. Junior A.J. Moore and redshirt-freshman Montrell Custis are expected to help at Huskie.
The long-time safety duo of Trae Elston and Mike Hilton have graduated and departed to the NFL, opening the door for some of the team’s talented and speedy youngsters to fill their shoes. Coming out of spring, junior C.J. Hampton and sophomore Zedrick Woods were neck-and-neck for the free safety role, while true freshman Myles Hartsfield enrolled early and wowed the coaches en route to being the clubhouse leader at Rover. Providing competition at those spots are junior C.J. Moore, redshirt-freshman Armani Linton and signee Deontay Anderson.
Ole Miss has gotten longer and faster at cornerback over the last couple of years, and the Rebel return both of last year’s starters in 6-foot-0 senior Tony Bridges and 5-foot-11 junior Ken Webster. Also in the mix at corner will be seniors Carlos Davis and Kailo Moore, sophomore Cam Ordway and redshirt-freshman Jalen Julius.
The Rebels return nearly all of the specialists from last season, including kicker Gary Wunderlich and punter Will Gleeson, who are both juniors. Wunderlich converted 19-of-25 field goals and all 63 extra points last year en route to 120 points, seventh-most by a kicker in SEC history.
Senior long snapper Will Few and senior kickoff specialist Nathan Noble also return, while Gleeson is the top candidate to replace departed Ryan Buchanan at holder.
Defensive backs Carlos Davis and Jalen Julius, running back Jordan Wilkins, and wide receiver Markell Pack are the prime candidates to lead the way on kick and punt returns.
Ole Miss has perhaps the most daunting four-game stretch to start the season of any college football team in 2016. The Rebels will trek to Orlando for a primetime Labor Day season opener against Florida State in the inaugural Camping World Kickoff game Sept. 5, which could be a matchup of top 10 teams depending on the polls. After the home opener against Wofford (Sept. 10), Ole Miss will host back-to-back games in renovated Vaught-Hemingway Stadium against SEC heavyweights Alabama (Sept. 17) and Georgia (Sept. 24). The Rebels will attempt to defeat the Crimson Tide for the third straight season, which would be unprecedented in the Nick Saban era of Alabama Football.
Other SEC home games include Auburn (Oct. 29) and Mississippi State (Nov. 26). Conference road dates are with Arkansas (Oct. 15), LSU (Oct. 22), Texas A&M (Nov. 12) and Vanderbilt (Nov. 19).
Ole Miss rounds out its 2016 slate with home games against 2015 bowl teams Memphis (Oct. 1 - homecoming) and Georgia Southern (Nov. 5).
Season tickets for the renovated 64,038-seat stadium (largest stadium in Mississippi) were sold out by May 4, the earliest in program history by more than a month.