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Extra Emphasis on Special Teams Play

Extra Emphasis on Special Teams Play

Through the years, special teams play has provided a winning edge in the Ole Miss-LSU rivalry, and and you don't have to go all the way back to Billy Cannon's 1959 Halloween run.

In a run that reminded fans of Cannon, Odell Beckham Jr. sparked a 41-35 comeback win for LSU with a game-tying 89-yard punt return for a touchdown in the teams' last meeting in Baton Rouge.

Andrew Ritter split the uprights on a 41-yard field goal with two seconds left on the clock to lift Ole Miss to a 27-24 win in last year's meeting in Oxford.

"When you watch all the highlights of the games of the past, there always seems to be a special teams play in there," special teams coordinator Tom Allen said. "We all know about the famous punt returns that have occurred down there. I was pretty emotional and passionate when I addressed our guys on Tuesday in our special teams meeting. I believe it's going to be the difference.

"Our 'it' that Coach Freeze challenges us with is to provide the winning edge, and that's what we need to do. We have done that in several games this year, and we need to do it again in this kind of environment."

The Rebels have a trio of freshmen in key spots on special teams, with Will Gleeson handling the punting duties, Gary Wunderlich handling placekicking and kickoff duties and Markell Pack returning punts. 

Gleeson ranks among the nation's leaders in punting (45.5 ypg) and net punting (44.0), while Wunderlich is 3-of-4 on field goals with a long of 46 against Alabama. Pack has had some shaky moments and continues to learn through game experience, but Allen remains confident in him.

"As I have said before, returning punts is the most difficult thing we ask anybody on our team to do," Allen said. "Being a young guy doing that is hard, but he's smooth catching the ball. He's the most natural one we have. Now, it's a matter of making good decisions under fire."


Defense Preps for Powerful Ground Game

The LSU offense is led by a three-headed powerful rushing attack that ranks sixth in the SEC (220.9 ypg). Freshman Leonard Fournette leads the way with 544 yards and seven touchdowns, followed by seniors Kenny Hilliard (353 yards, 6 TDs) and Terrence Magee (344 yards, 3 TDs).

Over their last two games, the Tigers have rushed for 195 yards on 50 carries in a 30-27 win at Florida and rushed for 303 yards on 51 carries in a 41-3 win over Kentucky, but they face their stiffest test of the season in Ole Miss, which boats the nation's sixth-best rush defense (97.1 ypg).

"The last two weeks they turned back into what they want to be, which is running the ball downhill," defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. "They have the big backs who are always falling forward, very good football players, with play-action off of it. The quarterbacks, especially (Anthony) Jennings, have gotten more comfortable in their offense."

Wommack said they faced a similar test earlier this season in Alabama. The Rebels held the Crimson Tide to 17 points and 396 yards of total offense (168 rushing, 228 passing), both well below their season averages of 39.6 points per game and 514.6 yards per game.

"Alabama, to me, is very similar," Wommack said. "Their lines are similar, and their backs are similar. Their receivers, in some ways, are similar. The one outstanding receiver at Alabama (Amari Cooper) is probably better than any one person at LSU, but as a group LSU's receivers are younger. The quarterbacks are very similar."

The more traditional, smash mouth offense, Allen said, plays to the strengths of their physical, downhill players, such as linebackers Serderius Bryant and Deterrian Shackelford.

"We're not a big linebacker corps, by any means, but we're tough kids," linebackers coach Tom Allen said. "That's what you've got to have against these guys. We're big enough and we tackle well enough that we feel comfortable against their scheme.

"I don't feel like we have a group of guys that can't adjust. We're probably better suited for this than we are some of the wide-open spread looks that we see."


Still Remains Questionable for LSU

Center Ben Still (sprained MCL) did not practice Wednesday remains questionable for Saturday's game against LSU.

"He is coming, just don't know exactly how he'll be Saturday," Freeze said. "The good thing is he knows everything. He doesn't have to get reps. If he can go, he certainly will."

If Still is unable to play, Robert Conyers will take over at center, having played almost all of the second half against Tennessee. He would be backed up Craig Frigo at center, with Daronte Bouldin and Davion Johnson also figuring in the tackle rotation.

"It lessens our depth at other places, but he had a really good game against Tennessee," said Freeze of Conyers. "He's very athletic. He's maybe not as strong or has as much mass as Ben for certain blocks, but he did really well and his snaps have been good."


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."


 

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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