This very well could be the year that Ole Miss wins the coveted SEC title. Having a good quarterback can take you a long way, and Chad Kelly is certainly a great one. In addition to Kelly, the Rebels are also returning six starters on either side of the ball, maintaining continuity between seasons. With a potentially stout defense and explosive offense, this is certainly a team to watch this season.
Chad Kelly is the focal point of the offense, and is almost certainly the most talented player on the roster. The former Clemson signal-caller has clearly found his home in Oxford, throwing for over 4,000 yards and 31 touchdowns, all with a healthy 65% completion rate. The up-tempo, spread offense is suited to his strengths, as evidenced by Ole Miss’s top-ten finish in yards per game nationally. One question will be at running back, where Jordan Wilkins was projected to start before being ruled ineligible this season. Their receiving corps is their strength, with Evan Engram as the headlining act. The uber-athletic tight end is Kelly’s safety blanket and premier target and should look to improve on his 38 reception season last year. Their two starting receivers, Damore’ea Stringfellow and Quincy Adeboyejo, combined for over 1,100 yards and 12 TD’s in 2015 and should shine with increased targets this year. With Laquon Treadwell in Minnesota, there should be plenty of opportunities to go around for this experienced core of receivers. The offensive line is the biggest question mark with four of the five starters having departed. If they can’t keep the pocket clean, things might not be as peachy this season as many, including myself, are predicting. If the new guys can step up and play to their talent level, this offense could very well finish in the Top-5 nationally, and Chad Kelly may be hearing his name called at the Heisman Trophy ceremony come December.
Ole Miss runs the 4-2-5, reminiscent of what South Carolina ran under Ellis Johnson and the early years of Lorenzo Ward. In this type of system, getting pressure on the quarterback is vital, and sets the tone for the entire defense. The players projected to start at their defensive end positions, Marquis Haynes and Fadol Brown, have some serious pass rushing chops. Haynes has notched 17.5 sacks the last two years and will likely be one of the premier pass-rushers in the 2017 draft if he decides to skip his senior season. Meanwhile, Brown lead the team in QB hurries last year with 10, but his strength is in the run game, setting the edge with his 280 pound frame. Inside at the defensive tackle position, Isaac Gross is back from injury, and the fifth-year senior should look to add to his 27.5 career TFL. In addition to Gross, D.J. Jones should make a huge impact as the run-stopping nose tackle. Having the 320-pounder clogging run lanes should help out the linebackers at the second level.
Speaking of linebackers, this could be a decent, but not otherworldly corps. Oregon State transfer Rommel Maego should be a good player at the middle linebacker spot, and DeMarquis Gates will play as the outside ‘backer, having played well down the stretch last season. Finally, this Ole Miss secondary has the potential to be good this year. Veteran C.J. Hampton is playing centerfield as the free safety, and at strong safety, freshman Myles Hartsfield is expected to take over. If Hartsfield lives up to his four-star billing, this could be a good safety duo. At cornerback, Ken Webster and Tony Bridges started 13 and 11 games last season, respectively, and should look to build on impressive seasons.
In all, this Ole Miss defense could be elite this season, and we all know the immortal mantra: defense wins championships. Throw in an extremely potent offense, and this team could make some serious noise in the postseason. I wouldn’t be surprised to see these Rebels named SEC champions, and 11 or 12 wins should be attainable. I, personally, am excited to see this team play, possibly challenging Kelly’s old team, Clemson, for the 2017 national championship.