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Nkemdiche Headlines Retooled D-Line

The return of junior defensive end C.J. Johnson and additions of sophomore Fadol Brown and freshman Marquis Haynes have changed the face of the defensive line, but freshman All-American Robert Nkemdiche remains front and center. 

With a season of experience under his belt, it's been a different experience for the former consensus No. 1 recruit this fall.

"I know the playbook so much better," Nkemdiche said. "I'm so much more chilled out. I'm not freaking out right now. I'm not nervous. My head's on straight, and I'm ready to have a huge game.

"I had a really good camp. I was focused. I'm bringing it every day, 100 percent, no matter what. I'm ready for the season and to have a really dominant season."

Beside Nkemdiche at defensive tackle has been a rotation of senior Bryon Bennett and junior Woodrow Hamilton with junior Issac Gross out due to injury.

"You lose quickness in there," said defensive coordinator Dave Wommack of missing Gross. "But kudos to Bryon Bennett because I have never seen him play as well as he's playing right now, across the board. He has some size, quickness and been super in there for us. I have been really pleased with him, but it affects your depth.

"Woody's issue has been staying out there on the field. When he stays out on the field, he's a really good football player. He's extremely tough to block. He's not just an anchor. He has some quickness and he can move around. He fits our scheme really well."

With the depth and experience on the defensive side of the ball, Wommack looks to rotate more players and be more aggressive this season. 

On the defensive line, Wommack said, they would like to play 8-10 players and get back to bringing pressure (five or more players) 35-40 percent of the time after bringing pressure around 27-28 percent this past season.

"This camp, we have shown so much progress in the D-line," Nkemdiche said. "We're getting after the quarterback every day. (Dave Wommack) is so much more comfortable. He's sending us four guys and letting his guys cover."

"We weren't able to do that last year because of the pass rush we didn't have and we lacked the corner play that we needed," Wommack said. "Boise is going to see some things they haven't seen in the last two years."


Haynes, Freshmen Show Out on Defense

Nkemdiche described Haynes as a physical freak. 

A former high jumper and 100-meter sprinter in high school, Haynes enrolled in January and broke into the two-deep early in the fall camp and has remained there.

"He has a knack for the football," said Nkemdiche of Haynes. "He's a freak. He gets to the football no matter what. If he has a missed assignment, he's still going to get to the ball either way. I like him. He plays 100 percent every down. That's what I like about Marquis. He's going to be really good in the future."

Wommack noted his raw talent, speed and quickness, adding that he's done a good job learning what they have asked him to do. He might not start in the season opener, Wommack said, but in certain packages, he will certainly be at one defensive end spot.

In addition to Haynes, Wommack raved about a trio of freshmen in defensive back A.J. Moore, linebacker DeMarquis Gates and cornerback Kendarius Webster. With the injuries in the secondary, Moore has stepped up as the team's third Huskie and Webster is in the mix as the team's fourth cornerback.

"Both of those freshmen hit a ceiling and then they came back down," said Wommack of Moore and Gates. "Kendarius Webster, too. They pushed forward and have gotten smarter each and every day, and they're going to play for us this year.

"This freshman class was a hit across the board. From top to bottom, it was better than last year's class, if you want to say that. I know there were some stars in that class the year before, but top to bottom, I don't think we missed on anybody. We have some really good football players. Some of them, if we're not going to use them this year, we absolutely don't want to burn them, and we will make that choice later on."


NOTABLE

In individual and team drills open to the media, the first-team offensive line featured sophomore Laremy Tunsil (LT), junior Aaron Morris (LG), junior Ben Still (C), junior Justin Bell (RG) and junior Fahn Cooper (RT). Sophomore Robert Conyers also got some first-team reps at right tackle when Cooper moved from right tackle to left tackle.

When the offense showed sets with two tight ends in team drills, it featured sophomore Evan Engram lined up at a traditional tight end spot and in the slot, with senior Nick Parker also at tight end on the first team. 

Sophomore Matt Brown played a role similar to Engram, with sophomore Jeremy Liggins also at tight end on the second team.

Freeze said he's looking for at least one wide receiver to emerge from a group that includes junior Quintavius Burdette, redshirt freshman Trey Bledsoe and freshmen Dayall Harris and Markell Pack.

Johnson, Brown and Haynes all got first-team reps at defensive end, with Nkemdiche and Hamilton at defensive tackle.

Brown, along with sophomore John Youngblood, got second-team reps at defensive end, with Bennett and senior Lavon Hooks at defensive tackle.

Senior Andrew Fletcher, Freeze said, remains in the lead for extra point and field goal duties from 43 yards and in, with redshirt freshman Andy Pappanastos and freshman Gary Wunderlich in competition to handle longer field goals.

In other special teams work, the first-team kickoff returners were junior running back Jaylen Walton and sophomore running back Mark Dodson. 

The second-team kickoff returners were sophomore cornerback Kailo Moore and junior safety Trae Elston. Redshirt freshman running back Eugene Brazley and junior running back I'Tavius Mathers also worked with the kickoff returners.

The kickoff return units also included freshman defensive back A.J. Moore on the first team and Gates on the second team. 

Other notables on the kickoff return units included junior defensive end Channing Ward, redshirt freshman running back Jordan Wilkins, senior linebacker Keith Lewis and sophomore safety Anthony Alford on the first team.

QUOTABLE

Hugh Freeze on Robert Conyers: "Robert is very, very valuable to us and will play three positions. He may be one of the most valuable pieces of us offensively because he can grasp all three of them and do them well."

Freeze on the center position battle having named Ben Still the starter: "They're pretty even and knowing that we're going to rotate Robert at all three on various possessions, it gives us a little more flexibility, but they're about equal. Robert probably needs to concentrate on both tackle positions between now and then and it gives the ones more reps with Ben."

Freeze on Fahn Cooper's action at left tackle: "He's athletic. It depends on who you're playing and what the matchups are. It's always about matchups. No matter who we put there, there are guys in this league, sometimes you're going to cringe when you get in too many one-on-one's, if you're not able to run the ball some. If they know you're throwing it, I don't care who we put out there. It's difficult, so you have to be balanced. That's been our whole goal since we have been here."

Freeze on Issac Gross, who missed practice with a neck injury: "Issac had the procedure yesterday to get some kind of shot that we think will help speed up the recovery and hopefully cure. We should know Monday if he will be ready to go for Boise."

Robert Nkemdiche on improvement: "Something that can make me stronger as a player is knowing the playbook a lot better. Last year, I feel like I had all the tangibles to be great, but I didn't know the scheme as well. I was out there about 50 percent. I didn't know what else to do. I was trying to go out there and make plays. This year, knowing the playbook a lot better and being more mature as a player and having an SEC season under my belt helps me because I know what to expect now."

Nkemdiche on returning to Atlanta for the season opener against Boise State: "It's a great feeling going back to the Georgia Dome. I started all four years in high school there, so let's go back and start one. We want to try to finish there too."

Dave Wommack on Mike Hilton practicing at both Huskie and cornerback: "Any time you have to double-train somebody, you lose a little something. You can't get totally focused on one thing, but he's a veteran and been here for two years and knows it better. You couldn't do it with a young guy for sure."

Wommack on the secondary: "I feel better about the secondary than I have in three years. I'm really pleased with the guys. We have some guys who can cover. We have some smart guys and can create different packages with those guys. This is one of better defensive teams that have been around the last couple of years."

Rebels Battle Injuries on Defense

Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze confirmed that junior cornerback Carlos Davis suffered a torn ACL and will likely have surgery Monday. 

Davis joins sophomore cornerback Tee Shepard and junior safety Chief Brown on the list of players expected to miss the 2014 season. Freeze also noted Davis has not used his redshirt year, so they will use it for him this year.

"We have lost arguably our top cover corner (in Tee Shepard), and Carlos, I believe without a shadow of doubt was our best special teams guy, both coverage units and return guy," Freeze said. "It hurts."

"Any time you lose somebody like Tee, that's a big hit," junior defensive end C.J. Johnson said. "Carlos, too. He was really going to help us a lot on our dime team. Those are two guys who really could have helped our football team a lot. For us to lose them, not that we don't have guys, and that's great, but it would have been better if we had those two."

With Davis out, freshman wide receiver Markell Pack, junior safety Trae Elston and sophomore safety Anthony Alford are all in the mix to return punts. It might also mean larger roles on special teams for younger players such as freshman Huskie A.J. Moore and freshman cornerback Kendarius Webster.

Ole Miss was also without junior Issac Gross on Friday, who briefly returned to practice earlier this week after being held out with a neck strain.

"He's still dealing with the neck," Freeze said. "He came back out, and it kind of flared up again. We're taking our time to make sure he gets it well. (Head athletic trainer) Pat (Jernigan) and them have a protocol that they're going to take him through, and they think they can improve it doing this if we can hold him out for a few more days. That's the plan there."

"We're missing him a lot," said Johnson of Gross. "Issac is a guy in the middle - especially when we go against an offense that runs a lot of spread and inside-zone stuff - who can get up and disrupt the timing of the blocking scheme. He can rush a little bit. He's a really big hit for us. We need him to hurry up and get back."

Senior Bryon Bennett ran with the first-team defense in place of Gross, beside sophomore Robert Nkemdiche, along with Johnson and freshman Marquis Haynes at defensive end. The second-team defensive tackles were junior Woodrow Hamilton and senior Lavon Hooks.


Updating the Backup Quarterback Battle 

Redshirt freshman quarterbacks Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade, Freeze said, split the majority of snaps in Thursday's scrimmage, so it was a good look into the backup quarterback battle.

"Ryan had a good scrimmage," Freeze said. "Bo (Wallace) did not take many snaps. DeVante had some really, really exciting, good plays. He had some on the other end of the spectrum also, so we have to keep bringing him along. He definitely brings a different element to us. But they have both improved."

Freeze noted Buchanan is ahead of Kincade in the passing game, adding that Kincade needs to improve his decision-making.

"I'm trying to work on pocket presence and stay in the pocket more because I know I have the ability to run, so I'm trying to make sure I stay in the pocket more and deliver better throws," Kincade said.

Freeze said he does not plan on naming a true backup quarterback in advance of the season opener against Boise State on Aug. 28.

"It would depend on what we're needing at that moment," Freeze said. "Each has different strengths. We'll do everything with both of them, but it would depend on the scenario to which they go in."

For both players, with their respective redshirt years behind them, their preparation has been different this season.

"My mental aspect is I prepare as if I'm the starter," Buchanan said. "I know I'm not the starter, but any second Bo can roll an ankle, get a concussion or something, so I have to be ready for whenever they call that play and always keep the drive going and never take a step back."

"It's a big difference from last year," Kincade said. "I remembered I would come out and put my helmet down and cheer on the guys. Now, I have to have my helmet ready any time the offense goes in, so it's a big difference."


 

NOTABLE:

In the individual and team drills open to the media, the first-team offensive line consisted of sophomore Laremy Tunsil (LT), junior Aaron Morris (LG), junior Ben Still (C), junior Justin Bell (RG) and junior Fahn Cooper (RT).

The second-team offensive line consisted of redshirt freshman Davion Johnson (LT), junior Craig Frigo (LG), sophomore Robert Conyers (C), freshman Rod Taylor (RG) and redshirt freshman Daronte Bouldin (RT). 

Different combinations along the offensive line also included Cooper at left tackle, Taylor at left guard, Frigo at right guard and Conyers at right tackle.

With the injuries in the secondary, freshman A.J. Moore ran with the second-team defense at Huskie, sophomore Kailo Moore got some second-team reps at cornerback and senior Cliff Coleman got some second-team reps at free safety.

In special teams work, Coleman, freshman safety C.J. Hampton and sophomore Derrick Jones were on the first-team punt return blocking the gunners. A.J. Moore, junior defensive back Mike Hilton and freshman cornerback Kendarius Webster were on the second-team punt return in the same role.

QUOTABLE

Hugh Freeze on Collins Moore, who has been held out with knee injury: "He's moving around well. He's starting to do things in the pool. We will be glad to get him back for sure. We need a little extra depth there at receiver."

Freeze on other players who stood out from Wednesday's closed scrimmage: "Victor Evans had a great scrimmage. Breeland Speaks, too. He's batting balls. He's a space-eater and he's tough. Those young kids stood out. Rod Taylor is coming on. Robert Conyers continues to do some good things and come on, as does Ben Still. Akeem Judd stood out. He made some really explosive, powerful runs. We had several kids stand out. DeMarquis Gates keeps showing up, as did the Moore twins. They're probably all going to have to play now."

Freeze on Cody Core: "Cody is so important to us because he's learning both inside and outside. He has to play for us to give us some depth, and he's doing it well. He makes very few missed assignments. He's physical and can catch it. He's very important to us."

Freeze on Quincy Adeboyejo: "He's still inconsistent in ball-catching, particularly in traffic. We have to continue to improve that. We love his skill-set and we love him as a kid. We have to continue to improve his consistency in ball-catching."

Ryan Buchanan on what he looks to improve: "We go tempo, we get into the red zone, and then sometimes you have to slow it down and be smart with it. Make smart decisions. Making completions are the biggest thing in the red zone."

Buchanan on understanding of the playbook: "I feel pretty good on paper. It's different trying to go full-speed, when you have blitzes to pick up and be able to know in that split second."

Buchanan on the offensive line: "They have improved since week one. With our defense, they like to send a lot of different blitzes, so they're really getting a tough look. They're picking up on it, and they're trying to improve each practice."

C.J. Johnson on the defense: "The defense has progressed well. We have really gotten after the quarterback a lot. I hate that we lost Tee and Carlos. Those are big hits for the defense, especially with the secondary, where we thought we had a lot of depth, but some young guys are going to have to step up and play now."

Johnson on Marquis Haynes: "He's done a really good job learning our defense and learning what to do and being coachable. He's come a long way and he's going to help us a lot."

Johnson on Robert Nkemdiche: "He's definitely found his way in college football. His get-off is probably second to none. He's going to acquire a lot of attention, and everybody knows that. It makes us raise our level of play because we know what they're going to give him. We're going to have to step and pick up the slack a little bit."

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."


 

Looking at CB, OL, WR and RB Depth

Sophomore defensive end Fadol Brown and sophomore cornerback Kailo Moore returned from their respective injuries, while sophomore Tee Shepard remains out with a toe injury. The results from Shepard's MRI performed on Saturday are being sent to Birmingham, head coach Hugh Freeze said, and there could be another update on his status as early as tomorrow.

"I'm always optimistic, but this is something that I'm not really familiar with," Freeze said. "It's a tendon on the bottom of his big toe. If it's completely torn, it definitely needs surgery. If it's not, there have been some who played through the year and then gotten it fixed. I just want to wait for the guys who do that all the time to tell us what they think."

Freeze remains confident in the depth at cornerback, a position bolstered by the return of Moore and the addition of freshman Kendarius Webster, who had previously been practicing in a green, non-contact jersey prior to Saturday's open practice. 

It might also mean a larger role for junior Mike Hilton who has practiced at both corner and Huskie and senior Cliff Coleman who has practiced at both corner and safety.

"The guys who we have are definitely better, and Ken Webster is added to it, now that he can go," Freeze said. "He's going to be a good player. Kailo is back. ... That's one place where we have some capable guys."

One position where depth remains a concern, Freeze said, is offensive line, where there was some shuffling Monday. Freshmen Rod Taylor and Sean Rawlings were practicing at tackle, with senior Carlton Martin moving inside to guard. 

In the center position battle, which has gone back and forth throughout fall camp, junior Ben Still and sophomore Robert Conyers split first-team reps, with Still receiving the majority of them.

Junior Fahn Cooper appears to be the backup at left tackle, if they were to be without sophomore Laremy Tunsil, as he took some reps at left tackle with the first-team offensive line, similar to Pierce Burton last season. In the same look, Taylor took reps at right tackle with the first team. 

Freeze also mentioned tight end and wide receiver as areas of concern with depth. The wildcard in the wide receiver group is sophomore Damore'ea Stringfellow, a transfer from Washington, who has run half the time with the second-team offense, as Freeze and the Rebels await word on an appeal to be immediately eligible.

"There are some depth issues there," Freeze said. "We have to stay healthy. Some of those young kids, Sammie (Epps), Markell (Pack) and Dayall (Harris) are going to be good players. Will they be ready Aug. 28? I don't know. That's a good question, and we'll see. If String's appeal would come through, that would certainly help, but I really have no time frame to know when it would be coming and what the response would be."

Running back, similar to corner, is a position where Freeze feels they have quality depth, led by juniors I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton, the team's two leading returners. Because of their experience, Freeze said you have to give a nod to them, but the other backs have also received their share of reps in practice.

"I'm pleased with all our running backs," Freeze said. "That's another place where we have quality depth. I'm not afraid to play any of them at this point. (Mark) Dodson is just like the rest of them. They're tit-for-tat in a lot of things. There are some that do some things better, but I wouldn't be afraid to play any of them."


NOTABLE

Seven different offensive linemen received first-team reps during individual drills: Cooper (left tackle and right tackle), junior Aaron Morris (left guard), Still (center), Conyers (center), junior Justin Bell (right guard) and Taylor (right tackle).

In special teams work, Pack, junior safety Trae Elston, sophomore safety Anthony Alford, junior cornerback Carlos Davis, Mathers and Walton returned kickoffs. Davis, Elston and Pack also returned punts.

Redshirt freshman Will Gleeson and freshman Gary Wunderlich split reps at punter, with Gleeson on the first team and Wunderlich on the second team. Gleeson practiced both the traditional punting and rugby-style punting but significantly more of the latter.

With junior Issac Gross out due to injury, senior Bryon Bennett has worked with the first-team defense at defensive tackle, so he would be appear to be the team's third defensive tackle in the rotation with Gross and sophomore Robert Nkemdiche. 

Similarly, freshman Marquis Haynes continues to receive reps with the first-team defense at defensive end, even with the return of Fadol Brown, so it appears to be Haynes, Brown and junior C.J. Johnson in the rotation there.

QUOTABLE

Freeze, on Kendarius Webster: "As long as he's full-go on the contact, he's physically gifted enough. Where he is understanding our stuff, he's still a little behind in that. If there's no one place that is the easiest to pick up on stuff, it is corner."

Freeze, on Mark Dodson: "He's physical. He runs with great balance and finishes with good pad level. He takes care of the football when he runs it. In pass protection, he's pretty decent. He measures up quite nicely with the rest of them."

Freeze, on Rod Taylor's conditioning: "As you go through camp, you're leg weary, but he's pushing himself to get through it. He loves to play. He's a gym rat and loves to play the game. I don't worry about his conditioning. It will get there."

Dodson, on the running back competition: "We know that when we're in there, we have to make something happen because we have another man who has the same talent as us, so we're out there doing what we can and taking advantage of every opportunity."

Dodson, on separation among the running backs: "What I think will make the difference is when we get into game situations and who can do what. Picking up the blitz will be number one thing. Can you stand your ground and know your blitz packages?"

Brown, on his foot, having missed some practice due to injury: "It felt pretty good. I felt pretty good going forward, but when I get to planting on it, it kind of bothered me a little bit, but I'm going to fight through it."

Brown, on the defense: "We're definitely executing a lot better, flying around. That's what Coach (Dave) Wommack and Coach (Chris) Kiffin stay on us about: effort. That's what we're focusing on right now: executing and giving maximum effort."

ESPN.com's SEC bloggers wrapped up their annual position rankings, where they rank the position units and rank the top players at the various positions. Below are the highlights for Ole Miss and links to all of the unit rankings.

Quarterbacks: 3rd

Bo Wallace enters his senior season ranked second in school history in total offense (7,085 yards) and passing yards (6,340). It's always nice to have that kind of experience, and Wallace should also be healthier after playing through shoulder pain each of the last two seasons. It's a three-man race for the backup job. DeVante Kincade is an exceptional athlete, Ryan Buchanan is more of a pocket passer. Both are redshirt freshmen. Don't forget about 6-foot-3, 296-pound sophomore Jeremy Liggins, who originally signed with LSU before going to junior college. Liggins could be a beast in short-yardage situations. 

Bo Wallace: 3rd

The dean of SEC quarterbacks, Wallace seems to finally be healthy after battling shoulder issues each of the past two seasons. If he stays healthy, he could easily shoot up to the top of these rankings. He needs to cut down on his 27 interceptions over the past two seasons, but he's also accounted for 54 touchdowns during that span. 

Running backs: 10th

Wide receivers and tight ends: 5th

Offensive coordinators love it when they can stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. Laquon Treadwell, who as a true freshman trailed only Jordan Matthews for the most receptions in the SEC last season, is the type of home-run threat to keep safeties on their heels. Evan Engram, who made a positive impression as a rookie himself before succumbing to injury, gives Ole Miss a one-two punch by demanding coverage in the middle of the field because he's simply too athletic a tight end to be covered by most linebackers in the league. 

Laquon Treadwell: 2nd

Everyone had the feeling he'd be special in his first year at Ole Miss, but it came as a surprise just how ready he was to compete in the SEC. Playing slot, he was one of the best receivers in the league, finishing second only to Jordan Matthews in receptions (72). As a result, coaches voted him SEC Freshman of the Year. At 6-foot-2 and 224 pounds, he has the frame to challenge smaller defensive backs. But it's his hands and ability to create space that make him special. With Donte Moncrief now gone, he'll transition to the outside and continue to be a favorite of quarterback Bo Wallace.

Evan Engram: 3rd

Injuries clouded an otherwise eye-opening rookie campaign. He started last season on a tear with 20 catches and four touchdowns through seven games and then missed the final five games of the regular season. If he has a clean bill of health, he's the type of hybrid receiver-tight end who can flourish in Hugh Freeze's offense and complement Laquon Treadwell on the outside. 

Offensive line: 9th

Laremy Tunsil: 3rd

The Rebels' 2013 recruiting class was full of five-star prospects, but none played better than Tunsil last season. He appeared in 12 games, making nine starts at left tackle. He allowed just one sack all year. He was a second team All-SEC selection, a member of the SEC All-Freshman team, and the coaches expect him to only get better as a sophomore. 

Defensive line: 4th

As Hugh Freeze moves into his third season on the job, the hope in Oxford is that the Rebels can make some noise in the West race. They have the depth, talent and experience in the defensive line to make a move. Sophomore tackle Robert Nkemdiche is the most talented of the bunch and primed for a huge season, but there's also depth inside. If C.J. Johnson stays healthy at end, defensive line should be the Rebels' strongest position in 2014. 

Robert Nkemdiche: 3rd

The consensus No. 1 high school prospect in the country last year, Nkemdiche started the season at end and then moved inside to tackle. He finished third on the team with eight tackles for loss despite missing two games with a strained hamstring. At 6-4 and 277 pounds, Nkemdiche is big enough and explosive enough to be a dynamic playmaker no matter where he lines up. 

Issac Gross: 8th

Size isn't everything at tackle. The 250-pound Gross proved that last season. He consistently went up against bigger guards and centers on the offensive line and used his quickness to lead the Rebels with 3.5 sacks and was second on the team with nice tackles for loss. Gross started four games at nose tackle last season. 

C.J. Johnson: 8th

The 6-2, 237-pound Johnson was on his way to an All-SEC season a year ago until an ankle injury sidelined him for the season. He had four tackles for loss in his first four games and, as a sophomore in 2012, led the team with 6.5 sacks. The biggest hurdle for Johnson has been avoiding injuries. But if he stays healthy, he'll make a ton of big plays for the Rebels this season. 

Linebackers: 8th

Serderius Bryant: 6th

He might not have the prototypical size for an SEC linebacker, but the 5-9, 218-pound Bryant emerged last season as one of the league's top big-play performers on defense. He led Ole Miss with 12.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. His speed is what sets him apart. 

Secondary: 1st

Talent and experience. Both are worth their weight in gold, and Ole Miss has loads of each. We're probably not giving anything away when we say that both Cody Prewitt and Tony Conner will make the list of the league's top 10 safeties later today. Prewitt led the league in interceptions last season, and Conner, a former four-star recruit, has barely scratched the surface on what he can do. Trae Elston and Senquez Golson, meanwhile, are potential impact players, along with Mike Hilton and Derrick Jones. If C.J. Hampton lives up to the hype, he could be a true freshman to keep an eye on. 

Cody Prewitt: 1st

On a defense loaded with former blue-chip recruits, it was Prewitt, a three-star safety from the tiny town of Bay Springs, Mississippi, who stood out the most last season. The 6-foot-2 junior showed the complete package as he led the SEC with six interceptions and became a near unanimous first team All-America selection. Now a senior, he's the clear face of a secondary that could be the best in the conference. 

Tony Conner: 3rd

Talk about fulfilling on promise. Conner, a four-star safety prospect coming out of high school, was an immediate impact player for Ole Miss, playing in all 12 games and earning Freshman All-America honors for his 66 tackles, one interception and seven passes defended. 

Special teams: 13th

Jaylen Walton: 8th

Another guy competing for a 2014 starting running back job, the diminutive Walton was impressive as a return man last season. In addition to his 523 rushing yards as a backfield mate for Jeff Scott and I'Tavius Mathers, he contributed 25 kickoff returns for 515 yards, good for a team-best average of 20.6 ypr. 

Head coach Hugh Freeze meets with members of the media following Wednesday's practice.

After going through a "laundry list" on injuries in Monday's weekly press conference, head coach Hugh Freeze had some good news on Wednesday with the possible return of defensive tackle Issac Gross and linebacker Temario Strong.

"It looks like we might get Issac (Gross) and Temario (Strong) back," said Freeze after practice on Wednesday. "Temario surprised us today and was moving around quite a bit better than what they expected. We might get him back. Those are the only two I expect at this point to get back."


Ole Miss was hit particularly hard on the defensive side of the ball, where it is expected to be without starting defensive ends Robert Nkemdiche and C.J. Johnson, as well as starting cornerback Mike Hilton and backup defensive end Carlos Thompson.


"We ain't got but so many," said Freeze Tuesday of defensive line. "We're going to play four down linemen. I really don't know who is playing exactly where right now."


Bryon Bennett, listed as a co-starter at defensive tackle with Carlton Martin, also got some reps at defensive end in practice this week, opposite senior defensive end Cameron Whigham.


"It was fun," said Bennett of defensive end, where he also started against Texas A&M last week. "I played a little in high school, but there's still a lot to get used with adjustments and stuff... There's more reading. It's more fun going against the tackle.


"It's a next-man-up attitude. Everybody is excited for the game and wants this win. We're trying to stay fresh, stay healthy and be ready for the game." 


Defensive lineman Bryon Bennett meets with members of the media following Tuesday's practice.

Starting running back and leading rusher Jeff Scott was held out of practice Tuesday and Wednesday, and Freeze said Wednesday that he doesn't expect him to play on Saturday. The running back position would then fall on I'Tavius Mathers (22 carries, 137 yards for the season) and Jaylen Walton (34 carries, 129 yards).


"I feel good," said Freeze Wednesday of Mathers and Walton. "Both of them have proven they're ready to have that responsibility that comes their way. I have been pleased with their performance and think we'll be fine there."


"I feel like we can pick it up," said Mathers Wednesday. "We always have to be ready. I just have to play my role."


The injuries have also affected the special teams units, such as punt return, where Freeze said Wednesday that wide receiver Korvic Neat would return punts in Scott's absence, with Trae Elston as his backup. 


Cornerback Carlos Davis, who Freeze called "a great cover guy," will be back this week, and the possible return of Strong will also help the special teams units, but Freeze said Tuesday it did take a hit this week, and they're going to have to call on guys to play even more snaps because of injuries.


The injuries may also affect tempo, as Freeze said the Rebels will likely use a similar strategy to last week against Texas A&M.


"We managed the first half not going tempo to try to limit the opportunities that Texas A&M had and get to halftime in the game, and it worked," said Freeze Tuesday. "We were probably more patient than we would be, but it worked, and it gave us a chance at the end. We will probably manage the tempo similarly this week."


 
Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack meets with members of the media following Tuesday's practice.

Offensive line coach Matt Luke meets with members of the media following Wednesday's practice.

Maurice Harris Talks Tight Ends

When asked about the tight end position after practice, head coach Hugh Freeze said they don't have any one player right now -- at this point -- who can do everything they want out of the position. Four players have split reps between the first-team, second-team and third-team offense.


"It's more play-specific," tight ends coach Maurice Harris said of the position. "We have to get the right kind of guys to do the specific task that we ask them to do. If we run the ball, Jack (Nuismer) is doing a good job, as well as Nick Parker. When we pass the ball, Evan (Engram) has separated himself some, along with Matt Brown. We have to get some consistency there, and these guys have to hone in on what we are doing."


Engram caught two touchdown passes in a live session of practice last night, Freeze said, while Harris mentioned a jump ball catch Engram had in the corner of the end zone over freshman safety Derrick Jones. Harris also raved about Engram's speed, his agility, his play-making ability and strong hands, adding that he plays fast.


"Evan is a physical kid," Harris said. "He's just light right now. He's 224 pounds, which is a lot heavier than when he came in at 209 pounds, but he's just light. I think he's physical enough to get the job done. I feel confident that he will."


Another interesting player at the position is Parker, who switched from running back to tight end. Of the four players, he has the most game experience, having appeared in seven games last season, mostly on special teams.


"I've been pleasantly surprised by Nick," Harris said. "The question was his physicality. Would he able to get in there and block, drive his feet, shoot his hands and finish blocks? And he's doing that. He needs to work on his route-running, but his pass-catching has been really good."


Injury Updates


At cornerback, senior Charles Sawyer (shoulder) returned to practice, including some team drills, but did not participate in live contact drills. Junior Senquez Golson (hamstring) ran again today, his second day of running, which Freeze said is "a good sign."


On the defensive line, freshman defensive Robert Nkemdiche (groin) was held out, but Freeze said he is "good, progressing really nicely." Junior defensive end C.J. Johnson was held out a tight Achilles, and Freeze said "the last thing you want to do with a tight Achilles is make him push through it right now." Freeze also noted sophomore defensive tackle Issac Gross (sports hernia) has practiced every day and "seems to be doing well."


On offense, Freeze said senior offensive lineman Patrick Junen (toe, wrist) is "really close and expects to see him start practicing next week." Freshman running back Kailo Moore (concussion symptoms) was back yesterday, and Freeze noted he "took a lot of carries today," and sophomore running I'Tavius Mathers (ankle) is now out of his boot, "so his situation is progressing," Freeze said.



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