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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."


 

'They Bounce Back And Will Fight'


Coming off a heartbreaking 41-38 loss to then-No. 9 Texas A&M this past Saturday, Ole Miss plays its third top-10 ranked opponent in four games with No. 6 LSU. The Rebels will try to snap a three-game losing streak, as they also deal with a lot of injuries, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.


"(Sunday), I thought was pretty good, and I know our coaches how we will handle it, said head coach Hugh Freeze of the team's confidence. "And talking to Coach Jackson this morning, he was pleased with the attitudes they had in workouts (Sunday). I just keep coming back to my experience with these kids, and they bounce back and will fight. And that gives me confidence to walk out there tomorrow with the same swagger we hope to have every Saturday."


"We're still confident," quarterback Bo Wallace said. "We played a tough schedule, but we're not using that as an excuse. We're 3-3, and we have a big game this weekend."


Among the injured players is junior Serderius Bryant, who left the Texas A&M game after being carted off on a stretcher. Bryant, Freeze said, suffered a concussion, then rejoined the team in meetings on Sunday and has started the concussion protocol to return.


On the field, Bryant had recently been added to the Bednarik Award Watch List and leads the SEC and ranks eighth nationally with 11 tackles per game, including a team-leading 12 tackles and forced fumble against Texas A&M.


"I'm extremely proud of him," Freeze said. "He runs the ball as passionately as any kid that we have, and he's a sold tackler once he gets there. He finishes plays. To lose him not only in that game, but to be without him going forward, if that's the case, it would be a big hit to us. 


"He's responsible for a lot of tackles, and I'm proud of him as the person he has become, on and off the field. He is making much better decisions for himself and how he goes about living, with academics and the social responsibility we're trying to get out kids to understand. I'm proud of the year he is having."



Freeze called it a "laundry list" of injuries, and it includes Aaron Morris, who was already out, starting running back and leading rusher Jeff Scott, starting defensive ends Robert Nkemdiche and C.J. Johnson, starting nose tackle Issac Gross and starting cornerback Mike Hilton.


Also among the injured is backup linebacker Temario Strong, backup quarterback Barry Brunetti, backup safety Chief Brown and backup defensive end Carlos Thompson.


"The other injuries, you see other teams go through it, and unfortunately we joined the ranks with them," Freeze said. "... It's part of the game. You hate it for the kids and you fear that because of our depth issue, we won't be able to adequately represent the progress we're making against these top teams. That's part of the game, like I said, and we won't blink. We will get the ones we have ready that can play, and I know they will compete with great passion for university Saturday evening."


"It's tough," said Wallace of the injuries. "You feel bad for the guys, but at the same time, we still have a long season and we have to be prepared to paly this week. There a lot of defensive guys out, so offensively, we have to put up some points."


When asked about who is out for Saturday's game, Freeze said "most of them."


"Not sure about Barry," Freeze said. "I don't know that he injured it any worse than it was, so hopefully he will be fine. Issac will try to go, I'm sure. I doubt Temario will make it, Robert no, Serderius I'm not sure, C.J. probably not, Carlos definitely not, Hilton doubtful. We have a challenge ahead of us."


If something should happen, and Bo Wallace nor Brunetti would be available, Devante Kincade would the guy to get to the nod, Freeze said. If Brunetti is out for Saturday's game against LSU, Freeze said he would not have a guaranteed package for Kincade, like has had for Brunetti, but they would have him ready to play.


"Devante is the guy we have said would get the nod to go should something happen," Freeze said. "We'll get him prepared to go, and again, you always struggle with what's in the best interest in the kid. But we also have to look at what's best for our team with six games left to play. We're inching forward in our progress in getting better and having chances to win, and we probably wouldn't hesitate to put him in if that's what's best for our team.


"The only way that Devante would be the backup is if I felt like we didn't have Bo nor Barry available. We're certainly not, at this point, not going to burn a redshirt on a young man that I don't know if, at this point, would be further ahead of either one of them in game-type situations."


How ready is Kincade?


"I would be comfortable with Devante doing some things," Freeze said. "We have yet to see how he is going to respond in front of 62,000 against a rival of your school. I don't know if that's fair to him to expect miracles. I think he's going to be a very good player, and I wouldn't hesitate to put him in if that's what's best for our football team."


VIDEO: Freeze, Werner, Heard

Head coach Hugh Freeze recaps Wednesday's practice, discusses the possibility of inclement weather for Saturday's game at Auburn and updates the health status of quarterback Barry Brunetti, defensive end C.J. Johnson and defensive tackle Bryon Bennett.

Offensive coordinator Dan Werner previews Auburn's defense, looks back on quarterback Bo Wallace's game against Alabama and discusses the role of running back I'Tavius Mathers in the offense. 

Wide receivers coach Grant Heard discusses Vince Sanders and his return from injury, Laquon Treadwell's progression and assesses the blocking of the wide receivers.

 

There are a lot of connections and similarities, as No. 24 Ole Miss prepares for its third straight road game of the season on the Plains against Auburn.


Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze and Arkansas State head coach Gus Malzahn served as Arkansas State's head coach in 2011 and 2012, respectively, and both teams run similar up-tempo offenses.


"We certainly can look just alike offensively, if we wanted to," Freeze said of the two offenses. "We'll be able to simulate their looks very efficiently for our defense. But having said that, both of us can change a lot during the course of a week, and he has two weeks to do whatever he is going to do. He will dress things up and add some wrinkles that we haven't seen.


"We are very, very similar in the things we do offensively, so it can help prepare us. You never know exactly what to prepare for. We'll show them that our defense wants to see, but there will be something that we don't cover that we will see Saturday night."


Freeze and Malzahn met when they were high school coaches and they traveled in the same circles of clinics and speeches. Their relationship grew when they were both assistants in the SEC in 2006. At that time, Freeze was the recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach at Ole Miss, and Malzahn was the offensive coordinator at Arkansas.


"It is somewhat eerily similar the paths we have shared many times," Freeze said. "We wish we were not in the same half of this conference, which would be nice. We would see each other just every so often and be able to help each other, but that's not reality, so we have to go and play.


"During the offseason, we would communicate quite a bit. Before this week, we would text maybe once a week, maybe a phone call, depending on who he's playing, and who I'm playing, we may talk some, without compromising each other's plan of any type. That's not real frequent. It's more of a texting, 'Good luck,' or "How are you doing?' deal."


Aplin Reunites With Two Former College Coaches


Another connection between Freeze and Malzahn is former Arkansas State quarterback and current Ole Miss administrative intern Ryan Aplin, who joined Freeze's staff after a very successful college career under Freeze and then Malzahn.


A two-time Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year, Aplin led the Red Wolves to back-to-back conference championships in 2011 and 2012 and completed his four year-career with more than 25 combined single-game, season and career school record and as the conference's all-time leader in completions, passing yards and total offense.


"I like to hire good people who played for me," Freeze said of hiring Aplin. "I like to take care of those guys. When Ryan's NFL deal fell through this year, it was a no-brainer. If I had a quality control spot open, I would certainly want him here, just like I hired Ben Aigamaua who played for me also, and I will continue to try to hire good people that know what we do and the core values of our program."


As an intern, Aplin works with co-offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Dan Werner charting data, analyzing film and performing other administrative duties. 

"I had a conversation with Ryan early this week," Freeze said. "I know he's very close to both out us, and I don't want him to feel uncomfortable at all in anything that's going on. I'm sure Gus has changed everything from when Ryan was there. But at the same time, we had changed some things, too. 


"People, though, who work or play for you for a while, there's only so much you can change. They still can probably tell if it's run or pass. Now, if you can do that in time to make calls, I don't know. We won't put Ryan in that position. We're going to move him down from the press box to the field in this game. He'll be involved in helping us this week for sure, but we want him to feel good about the way that everything goes about."



'They Remind Me A Lot Of Us Last Year'


Inheriting a team that went 3-9 last season and winless in the SEC, Malzahn has Auburn off to a 3-1 start this year, with home wins over Washington State, Arkansas State and Mississippi State. The Tigers' only loss was in their last game at then-No. 6 LSU, as they enter this week coming off a bye.


"They remind me a lot of us last year," Freeze said. "They are a vey, very hungry team that plays with great emotion, energy and passion. That's doesn't surprise me at all with Gus' leadership. They're off to a great start and have been very, very good at home, and we have to go there for another road trip in a hostile environment on a Saturday night. That's a big game for both schools sitting at 3-1. He will have them ready.


"He's got them playing extremely hard, and you face an offense that is very balanced in rushing and passing. They give you a lot of looks, motions and smoke and mirrors, and they are very efficient at what they do. Defensively, Ellis is one of the best in the business and is very, very multiple. You have to prepare for most anything."


Offensively, the Auburn rushing attack ranks third in the SEC with 232.2 yards per game, led by junior running back Tre Mason with 84.5 yards per game and four touchdowns. First-year quarterback Nick Marshall is 60-of-103 for 809 yards, with four touchdowns and four interceptions, and ranks sixth in the SEC in total offense with 239.3 yards per game.


R. Nkemdiche At Defensive Tackle


Having lined up primarily at defensive end in the first three games of the season, freshman Robert Nkemdiche moved inside for most of the game against Alabama. Freeze was overall pleased with the move, but it may not be permanent.


"We'll continue to look at where it's best to put him from week to week," Freeze said. "I wouldn't say it permanent. We'll look at what we're facing.


"He did fine. He made a few mistakes, but so did everyone. He graded out around 82 percent. He only had a few missed assignments. He made several tackles. He is very strong and tough to move around. He played real solid for a game of that magnitude against that offensive line in that arena."


Bouncing Back


Coming off the 25-0 loss at No. 1 Alabama, it was about learning from the loss, then putting it in the trash and preparing this week for Saturday against Auburn.


"One of the things about our program that I hope our kids see is that our coaches don't blink," Freeze said. "You have to play the next play. Yesterday, all of us didn't like losing. But again, it had been a while since we had lost compared to a few years back.


"We came into the team meeting. Sunday is about the truth. We told the truth about the offense, the defense and the special teams, and we put it in the trash and then went out and practiced with a lot of energy. I was real pleased with everyone's spirit."


Replacing Sanders At Receiver

Junior wide receiver Vince Sanders suffered a broken collarbone during one-on-one drills Saturday and is expected to be out 6-8 weeks. Sanders started 12 games last season and finished with 39 catches (3rd on team), 504 receiving yards (2nd on team) and four touchdowns (2nd on team).


"It's certainly a blow," head coach Hugh Freeze said of Sanders' injury. "The guy knew everything we did, and he could do at a fast pace. And he had a great offseason. Hopefully, he only misses three games. We got that opening week early, so maybe he can be back for our fourth game.


"We have some good young kids, and they will get ready to play. Hopefully, we stay healthy and not lose anyone else from that spot."


Freeze said senior Ja-Mes Logan is prepared to play both outside and inside receiver. He also said they have to have four guys ready to play at outside receiver and mentioned Logan, junior Donte Moncrief, sophomore Cody Core and freshman Quincy Adeboyejo as players for that role.


"He is a smart kid out there on the football field," wide receivers coach Grant Heard said of Logan. "He can handle a lot. I can put him in any spot, and he'll know what to do. And he's' the ultimate team player, because it doesn't matter to him. He just wants to get out there and compete."


With Sanders's injury, senior Korvic Neat's role will increase in the slot, and two other receivers who will look to step up are sophomore Cody Core, who played mostly on special teams last season, and junior Collins Moore, who missed most of last season with injuries to both shoulders.


"I need Cody to be more consistent, but he knows what to do, but be more consistent making plays," Heard said. "He can be a guy that can be a big-play threat for us."


"Collins, I'm still trying to figure out and make sure he's good. He's trying to get back into the swing of things from missing spring, but he's out there and looking good. He knows how the offense runs, so he can do some things to help us, too."


The two freshmen, Adeboyejo and freshman Laquon Treadwell, Freeze said have got to get ready to play at outside and inside receiver, respectively.


"They pick things up quick," Freeze said of the freshmen. "They're quick learners. And of course, they have the skill level, which helps. I expect them to be very good players."


"They're freshmen," Heard said. "When things start going fast and get hectic, they make mistakes, but they are picking the offense really quick. And they're making plays out there, which is good to see. I think they're having fun. This offense is easy, but it's different for them. When things get hectic, they have to learn to slow it down in their minds."


NOTABLE:


Sunday was the first practice with shoulder pads.


Senior Pierce Burton was limited, so redshirt freshman Robert Conyers got some first-team reps at right tackle. Conyers is also getting reps at center behind senior Evan Swindall.


With senior Charles Sawyer and Senquez Golson sidelined, senior Dehendret Collins and sophomore Quintavius Burdette got first-team reps at cornerback for the second straight day.


On the defensive line, senior Cameron Whigham and sophomore Channing Ward got first-team reps at defensive end, and junior Bryon Bennett and sophomore Woodrow Hamilton at defensive tackle. 


Behind them, freshman Robert Nkemdiche, junior Carlos Thompson and sophomore John Youngblood got second-team reps at defensive end, and juniors Lavon Hooks and Carlton Martin at defensive tackle.


Five newcomers were among those who got reps in the back seven on the second-team defense, with freshman Tony Connor at Huskie, junior Quadarias Mireles and freshman Bobby Hill at cornerback, and sophomore Anthony Alford and freshman Derrick Jones at safety.


In a kickoff return drill, sophomore running backs I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton, freshman running backs Mark Dodson and Kailo Moore and sophomore safety Trae Elston got reps as the deep men.


QUOTABLE: 


Freeze, on junior quarterback Bo Wallace: "We really saved him until the end of practice today, and he seemed to be fine. He wasn't complaining, or anything. We just have to take things slow."


Heard, on flexibility at wide receiver: "The good thing about this offense is once they know it, they can be put in anywhere. Ja-Mes, Donte, Cody, I can move around, and they can go in and fill that spot."

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