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Three and Out: Keys to Ole Miss-ULL

Three areas to watch as Ole Miss faces Louisiana-Lafayette in its home opener Saturday.

Wearing the Bull's-Eye

After a 2-0 start with wins over Boise State and Vanderbilt, Ole Miss moved up to No. 14 in the Associated Press poll, its highest ranking since 2009. 

Many are already pointing to the matchup with No. 3 Alabama on Oct. 4 in Oxford, but two home games stand in the way, starting with Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday.

"There's no question in my mind the bull's-eye that will be on our chest for this week with the group from Lafayette will be huge," Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. "We expect to get their best shot and we have to be prepared for it."

There's also a mutual familiarity from when Freeze was the head coach at Arkansas State in 2011, which was also Mark Hudspeth's first season at Louisiana-Lafayette. 

"They didn't play their best the other night," said Freeze, referring to Louisiana-Lafayette's 48-20 loss to Louisiana Tech. "They turned it over and put them in bad spots, but I know we'll get their best, and just a couple years ago they either beat Florida or had them right to the wire.

"From being in that conference, I know how it is for those kids to get a chance to play in these arenas and these games. I know Mark will have them ready and it'll be a good game." 

Developing Offensive Line Depth

From week one to week two, the false start penalties decreased from eight to two, while the yards per rush average increased from 2.1 to 3.6, but the coaches continue to want to see improvement from the offensive line as the season progresses.

Freeze said Ole Miss will continue its offensive line rotation against Louisiana-Lafayette, with sophomore tackle/center Robert Conyers and freshman guard Rod Taylor seeing extended action in reserve roles. 

Freeze also mentioned Craig Frigo as a candidate for additional reps, but it remains to be seen if redshirt freshman offensive tackle Christian Morris has progressed enough to be game ready.

"He's got a ways to go," Freeze said. "The last couple of weeks, he's been with the scout team and hasn't been working the scheme that we're running. His technique is a ways away too because he hasn't played in a while. I'm glad we have him. We're going to bring him along because we could certainly use him before the year is over for sure, but he still has a ways to go." 

Freeze Eyes Two Areas for Improvement

In addition to continuing to work out ways to effectively run the football to be balanced on offense, Freeze mentioned two areas where he wants to see improvement going forward.

Offensively, Freeze wants to see improvements in red-zone scoring, where the Rebels have scored six touchdowns and kicked two fields goals in 10 trips to the red zone through two games.

"In the red zone, sometimes you have to be hard-nosed to run it in, and if they load the box, we feel pretty good about throwing it up to Laquon (Treadwell)," offensive line coach Matt Luke said. "It's going to be one of those things, where we're either going to pound it in there, or if they want to put a bunch of people in the box, we feel like we have receivers who can make some plays."

Defensively, Freeze wants the defense to continue to limit explosive plays. He has said on more than one occasion, he's confident in the defense if the opponent has to drive the length of the field consistently. 

Through two games, the Rebels have allowed just eight plays of 20 yards or more, which has helped lead to allowing just 8.0 points per game, which ranks fifth in the NCAA and second in the SEC.

"We stopped the run primarily and we got some pressure on the quarterback and we didn't give up explosive plays and I think that's key for us this year," Freeze said after a 41-3 win over Vanderbilt. "We want to make people drive to earn points and I think we did that well."

Luke Breaks Down the Offensive Line

The center and right tackle position battles have been two of the biggest story lines of fall camp, but as the Rebels prepped for their second preseason scrimmage Wednesday night, they are closer to solidifying the depth chart along the offensive line.

"It's starting to shape up," offensive line coach Matt Luke said. "Right now, there's still a pretty good battle going on at center with Ben (Still) and (Robert) Conyers, and then Conyers being able to move out and play tackle gives us some flexibility there. Rod Taylor has come on, understanding with more reps he gets. He's very talented. The more reps he gets, the better he's going to get there (at guard). Craig Frigo has been impressive. He can give us some depth there (at guard). 

"The issue we have right now is tackle, trying to figure out the mixing and matching when we're subbing. In early games, you want to be able to play some guys, especially with our tempo, so the challenge right now is to figure out the best rotation."

The discussion along the offensive line starts with sophomore Laremy Tunsil, a freshman All-American, who will anchor the line at left tackle and has made a jump from his freshman to sophomore season.

"He's much more confident," Luke said. "I know it's hard to believe with a guy of that ability, but his ability level has really risen. I have been very impressed with him as a leader and his knowledge of the game. He's gotten a lot stronger. He's kept his weight right where it needs to be, in the 305-pound range. He's moving really well. I have seen the biggest improvement in his run-blocking, trying to finish people. He took the challenge to get stronger and finish in the run game."

Inside, juniors Aaron Morris and Justin Bell have been constants at left and right guard, respectively, with Taylor and Frigo the primary backups there. Morris, who missed all of the 2013 season and was limited in spring drills with an ACL injury, has showed no ill effects during fall camp.

"I have been impressed with him," Luke said. "He has a little tendinitis from coming back from the knee injury, but he's gone every rep of every single thing. He hasn't come out. I'm hoping he will continue to get in football shape as we go through this second big scrimmage of preseason."

There has been shuffling on the line with redshirt freshman Daronte Bouldin moving outside to tackle and leaving Taylor inside at guard. Bouldin is battling fellow redshirt freshman Davion Johnson for the fourth tackle spot behind Tunsil, junior Fahn Cooper, who appears to have solidified the starting right tackle spot, and Conyers.

"He's doing well," said Luke of the move for Bouldin. "I have been very pleased. We tried Rod out there a little bit, but with a young guy, it's better to leave him at one spot. Maybe as the season progresses, we can play some more tackle. Daronte has been in the offense longer and knows the offense. He's done well out there on the edge. He's been a pleasant surprise at tackle because I had him slotted as a guard in my mind."

Overall, Luke said, they're a couple of guys away from being where they want to be depth-wise, but they are comfortable with six to eight players in the offensive line. One area he looks for marked improvement this season is the run game.

"Our line is built to get better in the run game," Luke said. "We're bigger and more physical. Fahn gives us some punch there at right tackle because he's a big, physical guy. The run game will be good. We'll be physical. We still have to continue to try to block No. 5 (Robert Nkemdiche). That's hard for anybody, but when he gets into those 1-on-1 match ups, we have to step up and protect and we have struggled to do that against him."


Ole Miss Ranked No. 18 in SI Preseason Poll

Sports Illustrated unveiled its preseason top 25 Wednesday, including its four playoff-bound selections in No. 1 Florida State, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 4 Ohio State. In addition to Ole Miss at No. 18, other Southeastern Conference teams included in the top 25 were No. 7 Auburn, No. 11 South Carolina, No. 12 Georgia, No. 14 LSU, No. 20 Texas A&M and No. 22 Missouri.

Ole Miss had one of the SEC's best attacks at times last season, averaging 6.0 yards per play and a league-leading 78.3 plays per game, but execution was often a problem. The Rebels ended the year next to last in the conference in red zone efficiency (73.9%). That inability to finish kept Ole Miss from contending in the SEC West last season. Senior Bo Wallace holds the keys to coach Hugh Freeze's up-tempo offense. Sophomore receiver Laquon Treadwell and sophomore tight end Evan Engram should give Wallace plenty to work with through the air, while tailbacks I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton, who combined for almost 1,100 rushing yards last year, will man the backfield.

For a complete scouting report on Ole Miss from Sports Illustrated, click here.

QUOTABLE

Hugh Freeze, on the status of Tee Shepard: "We are getting different opinions, but it doesn't look good. It is a rare injury that he could try to push through and get fixed after the season. However, there is the chance that scar tissue could form and affect him long term. We certainly think he has a career in football and we want to do everything we can to preserve that career. The final decision has not been made; we are waiting on one final opinion from one of the top doctors that deals with this injury every day, but right not it doesn't look promising."

Freeze, on Shepard's eligibility if he doesn't play this season: "He would have two (years) to (play) two (years). He's three (years) to (play) three (years) right now, but there's hopefully a basis for an appeal to get a year back. You can't do that until after his eligibility is done.

Freeze on Issac Gross: "He's fine. He was back yesterday at practice. He seemed to be his old self. He had a little neck strain, but he looked good yesterday at practice."

Freeze, on the offensive line: "We're pretty close to solidifying our depth chart. We worked a lot of combinations. We moved Daronte (Bouldin) to right tackle. We decided we're going to leave Rod (Taylor) inside. Davion (Johnson), Fahn (Cooper), Laremy (Tunsil) and Robert (Conyers) are getting work at tackle. Robert is going between center and tackle. There are going to be some guys who have to play two spots, but we're pretty close."

Jaylen Walton, on the running backs: "This is the most talented group because of depth. We're all young, all around the same class. I played against Mark (Dodson), I'Tavius (Mathers) and Jordan (Wilkins). All of them are going to be good backs."

Walton, on Akeem Judd: "Out of all the running backs, Akeem is the bruiser. He's the hard-nosed runner out of all of us. He's coming along, learning all the plays and all the assignment. He's picking it up pretty well."

Vince Sanders, on missing spring drills: "It was very frustrating. Any time you miss you wish you were out there with your guys practicing. It was frustrating, but I know I had to stay positive because I was looking forward to camp."

Sanders, on being overlooked: "I understand you can't get too caught up in the media. I have been here for a long time now and my name has never been up there because we had other guys. I don't let that get to me too much."

Matt Luke, on Sean Rawlings: "He's doing well. He's been doing some center and tackle. He has a similar body type to Conyers. As he grows, he will be in line with that. He's done well. He's picked up the offense. We would love to be able to redshirt him and Jordan Sims, if I can, but I don't know if I will be able to or not. We'll see how it goes."

Luke, on Craig Frigo: "He's exactly what you're looking for in terms of his demeanor in football. He's a tough guy. I asked him to play some tackle early on and he did that, but I see him contributing at guard, with him and Rod being able to sub for Aaron and Justin."


 

The Week That Was: Ole Miss Football

Ole Miss continues its preparations for the the 2014 season with the second full week of fall camp starting Monday. Here's a look back at the first full week of fall camp with some observations and takeaways, as well as some linked stories of interest for Ole Miss fans. We will look to do something similar each week on the blog throughout football season.

1. Southeastern Conference coaches talked anonymously about conference foes for the 2014 season, and they had a lot of praise for Ole Miss

"They are probably the second-best team in the West, maybe better," said one anonymous SEC coach.

2. NFL.com's Bucky Brooks compiled a list of the top 25 college football teams with the most NFL talent, and headlined by the sophomore trio of Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss came in at No. 13.

"With the Rebels poised to dominate the NFL draft the next few years, it's time to view Ole Miss as a viable contender in the SEC West," wrote Brooks of Ole Miss.

3. ESPN.com's Travis Haney compiled a list of the top 50 breakout players for the 2014 season, and Nkemdiche came in at No. 10, and if the first week of fall camp is any indication, he's primed for a breakout season. 

"In our gap schemes we can't back block because of him, and that causes us to have to change some things," said Freeze of Nkemdiche. "When you're installing you want to be able to just run your stuff and teach it, but it looks so bad you get frustrated. He's a handful."

4. Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack called Anthony Alford one of the best two or three athletes on the team. He's pushing junior Trae Elston at Rover safety, he's in the mix as a punt returner, and he's taking snaps as a Wildcat quarterback. He looks the part and he's going to play a significant role this season.

"I love him in a lot of ways," said Freeze of Alford. "He took some snaps (at quarterback) yesterday too. He looked explosive. He looked good at punt return this morning. Defensively, he's getting better and better."

5. With the injury to sophomore Tee Shepard - who had an MRI on Saturday and we will learn more from Freeze on Monday - it will be interesting to see where senior Cliff Coleman and junior Mike Hilton gets reps. Both versatile defensive backs can play cornerback, Huskie and free safety.

6. On a related note, with the injury to Shepard, freshman Kendarius Webster may play a bigger role at cornerback. He shed his non-contact green jersey for the first Saturday and made a couple of nice plays, including an interception of sophomore quarterback Ryan Buchanan.

7. Going back to spring practice, the coaches have raved about freshman defensive end Marquis Haynes. He's run with the first-team defense in place of sophomore Fadol Brown, who's been sidelined with an injury. Look for him to contribute as a rush end opposite junior defensive end C.J. Johnson, if not in a larger role this season.

"He's getting some different looks over there with the tight end and different things that he's not used to, so he makes some mistakes," said Freeze of Haynes. "But one thing I know about him is he makes them 100 miles an hour. We can live with that. We're pleased with where he is and we expect him to get better each day."

8. While the defense dominated on Saturday, senior quarterback Bo Wallace showed off his stronger arm, rolling left and completing a back-shoulder pass to Treadwell for a touchdown, and later throwing another touchdown to sophomore tight end Evan Engram in a red-zone drill.

9. On the offensive line, it appears to be six players competing for five spots, with Tunsil at left tackle, junior Aaron Morris at left guard and junior Justin Bell at right guard the constants throughout fall camp. Concerning the center and right tackle position battles, Freeze said it would probably be another week before deciding on the first-teamers.

"We've been going back and forth this week," Freeze said Saturday. "It will probably be another week before we say, 'This is who we're going with in the first group.' Fahn (Cooper) has been going with the first group (at right tackle) until today I think we made a switch back to look at Robert (Conyers) there and Ben (Still) at center."

10. If you're looking for a walk-on to contribute, junior Craig Frigo, a 6-foot-1, 301-pound offensive lineman from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, is a prime candidate. He has consistently worked with the second-team offense and has also showed some versatility, moving around from left tackle, to right tackle, to left guard, even taking some snaps at center.

11. With six running backs also competing for playing time, it's hard to notice any separation, but it appears that sophomore Mark Dodson and redshirt freshman Jordan Wilkins have taken a lot of first-team reps and have shown out thus far in fall camp.

12. Without much fanfare, junior Quintavius Burdette moved from cornerback to slot receiver during the spring and entered fall camp as a backup behind sophomore Quincy Adeboyejo. The two-sport athlete, who also competes on the Ole Miss track & field team, has gotten his share of first-team reps with Adeboyejo and sophomore tight end Evan Engram, who has also lined up in the slot.

13. In special teams work, freshman Gary Wunderlich, the No. 1 kicker prospect coming out of high school, has split reps with redshirt freshman Will Gleeson at punter and redshirt freshman Andy Pappanastos and senior Andrew Fletcher at kicker. Wunderlich has the strongest leg of the group but he must improve his consistency.

14. When asked after practice Thursday, Freeze said Gleeson was in the lead at punter. The Melbourne, Australia, native gives the team some options to do some out-of-the-box stuff, such as the rugby-style punting from his Australian football background. Following in the footsteps of his older brother, Tim, who plays for Rutgers, the younger Gleeson has played the American game for about two years.

"I basically had to forget all my instilled knowledge of kicking Australian football on the run low and hard, and basically kick it high and as long as possible in two steps with hang time," Gleeson said.

15. We're 18 days away from the season opener against Boise State, but here's an interesting profile of first-year Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin and his stamp on the program after the departure of long-time Broncos coach Chris Petersen for Washington. Prior to his arrival at Boise State, Harsin was the head coach at Arkansas State (2013), where he followed Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn (2012), who followed Freeze (2011).

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