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A Closer Look: Running Backs

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This is the first of a 10-part position-by-position series looking back at the 2017 season, as well as previewing what lies ahead for Ole Miss football in 2018.

Top Performer: Jordan Wilkins (155 carries, 1,011 rushing yards (6.5 avg.), nine rushing TDs, 26 receptions, 241 receiving yards, one receiving TD)

Returning in 2018: D'Vaughn Pennamon [injured] (Jr., 2L), Eric Swinney (Jr., 2L), D.K. Buford (Sr., 3L), KeShun Wells (Jr., SQ)

Newcomers in 2018: Scottie Phillips (So., Jones County JC, Mid-Year Enrollee), Isaiah Woullard (Fr., Mid-Year Enrollee)

Losing from 2017 Team: Jordan Wilkins (Graduation), Eugene Brazley (Graduation)

Looking Back at 2017: Running the football was an issue for Ole Miss in the first month of the season and Phil Longo's offense struggled to gel as a result.

But as the Rebels got deeper into the season -- and got past the likes of Alabama and Auburn on their schedule -- the team found a way to resurrect the running game. Ole Miss rushed the football for 380 yards on 132 attempts in its first five games of the season last year. Over the final seven games of the season, the Rebels ran for 1,227 yards on 238 touches that was good for 5.15 yards per carry.

There were a number of factors that contributed to this. It naturally took some time for Longo to find out what calls worked best with his personnel. Some of it was simply the opposing run defenses Ole Miss faced in the back end of its schedule. Some of it was Jordan Ta'amu stepping in at quarterback when Shea Patterson went down with an injury. The offense became more cohesive with Ta'amu and it was clear his decision making in the running and passing game helped out. A lot of it was just how good Jordan Wilkins was for the Rebels down the stretch. Wilkins ran for 1,011 yards in his final season as a Rebel on 155 carries and scored nine times. He battled through a painful planter fascia injury in his foot and was key in helping Ole Miss find some semblance of balance in an offense loaded with receiving talent on the perimeter.

As a team, Ole Miss' 2017 running game as a whole could be labeled successful. The team rushed for 1607 yards, good for 4.3 yards per carry and 19 touchdowns. Wilkins was the first 1,000-yard rusher since Dexter McCluster in 2009.

Looking Ahead to 2018: It begs the question: What will the Rebels look like at this position next year? With an offense that hinges on run-pass-options, it is certainly an important one. The departure of Wilkins is a big loss. There's no getting around that given that he accounted for 41 percent of the team's carries and 62 percent of the yards. The Rebels also lose a speedy back in Eugene Brazley, who was used sparingly last year and tallied only six touches. Ole Miss does bring back D'Vaughn Pennamon and Eric Swinney-- essentially carried what was left of the rushing workload behind Wilkins. Pennamon carried the football 53 times for 227 yards while Swinney ran 41 times for 209 yards. Both were pretty highly regarded recruits coming out of high school, but have not yet been asked to shoulder much of the weight of the running game yet in their careers.

Pennamon suffered a leg injury against Texas A&M and his timeline for returning is not clear. Swinney is no stranger to injuries himself. This was his first healthy season in Oxford after enduring two catastrophic knee injuries the previous two seasons. Matt Luke and his staff were able to reel in the top junior college running back in the country in Scott Phillips, who signed in the December signing period and is expected to contribute next fall. Phillips, who is a mid-year enrollee, ran for 1,122 yards on 222 carries at Jones Country Junior College last season and Ole Miss is hoping he will get acclimated to the division one level quickly.

This trio is who Ole Miss will primarily look to replace the productions Wilkins gave them. There isn't a lot of experience between them, but Pennamon and Swinney do have 115 carries between them in their careers and have a couple years of experience in the program. Phillips is a talented, powerful back at 5-foot-9, 205 pounds. The Rebels have some intriguing options to fill the void Wilkins leaves, but it is undoubtedly a big one at that.

A Closer Look:
- Running Backs (Jan. 8)
- Quarterbacks (Jan. 9)
- Wide Receivers (Jan. 10)
- Tight Ends (Jan. 11)
- Offensive Line (Jan. 15)
- Defensive Line (Jan. 16)
- Linebackers (Jan. 17)
- Cornerbacks (Jan. 18)
- Safeties (Jan. 19)
- Special Teams (Jan. 22)

Previewing Ole Miss Football Media Day

Ole Miss football players will report to campus on Friday for the start of 2014 fall camp. 

Friday will also feature Media Day activities beginning with head coach Hugh Freeze's press conference at 2 p.m, which will be streamed live on OleMissSports.com's RebelVision, followed by interviews with assistant coaches and requested players.

The roster has been updated to include newcomer bios, jersey numbers and updated positions, heights and weights. 

Among them are sophomore defensive back Tee Shepard, wearing No. 2, and a trio of athletes in freshmen D.K. Buford and C.J. Moore, wearing Nos. 35 and 26, and sophomore Jeremy Liggins, wearing No. 15.

Here are four things to watch as the Rebels meet the press on Friday and open fall camp on Saturday:

Finding Best Five On Offensive Line

The Rebels have to replace three starters from last year who graduated -- left guard Jared Duke, center Evan Swindall and right tackle Pierce Burton. Laremy Tunsil, a freshman All-American and one of the first two Ole Miss freshmen to be named All-SEC, anchors the line at left tackle.

Junior Aaron Morris, Freeze said at SEC Media Days, should be ready to go day one, having missed most of last season after suffering a torn ACL in the season opener against Vanderbilt. He will return at left guard, where he started all 13 games in 2012.

Junior Justin Bell started every game last season, with six at left guard and seven at right guard, where he is listed as the starter entering fall camp. Junior Ben Still and sophomore Robert Conyers are listed as the starter at center and right tackle, respectively, entering fall camp. 

Redshirt freshman Daronte Bouldin, who got a lot of reps in spring practice, is another player to watch, as are newcomers Fahn Cooper, a second team NJCAA All-America selection, and Rod Taylor, an Under Armour All-America selection, whom Freeze raved about at SEC Media Days.

Second Time Around For Talented Sophomores

Last year's freshman class, headlined by four freshman All-Americans, are now sophomores, and they will have a huge role in defining how successful Ole Miss will be this season. The Rebels will also look for the fruits of the labor from another year in the offseason program with Paul Jackson.

For Robert Nkemdiche and Derrick Jones, it's the first full camp at their new positions, having moved to defensive tackle and cornerback, respectively, during their freshman seasons. For Laquon Treadwell and Quincy Adeboyejo, it's continuing in their transition to outside receiver and slot receiver, respectively. 

Backup Quarterback Battle To Continue

In addition to watching senior Bo Wallace, as it relates to his confidence and arm strength in fall camp, the battle behind him has continued into fall camp between redshirt freshmen Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade. Since the start of fall camp last season, this has been a story line and it will undoubtedly continue, whether they continue to split snaps or one separates from the other. 

On a related note, it will be interesting to see where junior college transfer Jeremy Liggins, listed as an athlete, will work during fall camp and how he might contribute this season. ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach wrote that he will start fall camp working as a tight end, but he may end up contributing at any number of positions, including quarterback.

Making Special Teams Special

The Rebels return 15 starters on offense and defense, but they have to replace both their kicker and punter on special teams. Senior Andrew Fletcher and redshirt freshman Will Gleeson are listed as the starters at placekicker and punter, respectively. The wildcard in the group is incoming freshman Gary Wunderlich, the nation's No. 1 kicker prospect, who has the potential to handle both duties.

There are a lot of options in the return game, with junior running back Jaylen Walton listed as the starter at kick returner and junior cornerback Carlos Davis listed as the starter at punt returner. A trio of sophomores in safety Anthony Alford, cornerback Kailo Moore and wide receiver Quincy Adeboyejo also figure in the mix.

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    Tiffany J. Moore said:

    This is amazing with what he have done so far! Hope that he'll achieve more in the future!

    in post Evan Engram Hauls in Midseason Accolades

    Fiftyyears fan said:

    How can you have five straight top 25 recruiting classes and look as bad as Ole Miss has this year. Easy lack of coaching fundamentals. Look at Mason at Vandy, nothing but 2 and 3 star recruits out of high school and he developers players that want to win. Hugh freeze has 3, 4 & 5 recruits and he expects them to win because of what they were in High School. Mr. Freeze you have not been teaching the fundamentals of football or winning in life. Mr. Freeze you have quit on your players because you have some false expectations of what they are instead of what you can develop in them. Either do your job or quit. Oh yea, please quit running your smoke and mirrors offense, everyone has figured it out. Run a physical offense that can open up holes for your running backs and then your pass attack want require 12 are 14 four and five star receivers. Mr. Freeze you have problems and you need to know that you are not smarter than the rest of the coaches in the SEC.

    in post Rebels Unable to Send Senior Class Out on a High Note

    Karen Holden said:

    Not every pass can be caught. Too low, too short whatever. Not every Kelly pass is perfect. Records were broken by receivers also. But they sre not going to catch every ball thrown. The loss to Auburn was not one players fault. You win or lose as a team.

    in post Late Mistake Spoils Chad Kelly's Historic Performance

    Trent browning said:

    Hey I was just wandering if these are the only 2 olemiss players signing. If there are more signing please respond to me ASAP. Also wondering if neil everett will sign any autographs. Thank you very much

    in post Heisman House Tour Heads to Oxford for Ole Miss-Georgia

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    in post Madden 17 Ratings for Former Rebels

    Jamie laverty said:

    Bulmer I love you and ole Miss

    in post Fast Runner From Down Under

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    in post Fast Runner From Down Under

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    in post Fast Runner From Down Under