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May 12, 2014

Spring Wrap-up: Ole Miss

Editor's note: This is the tenth installment of a 14-part in-depth look at spring practices from throughout the Southeastern Conference from the SEC writers of the Rivals.com network. Up today are the Rebels of Ole Miss.

OXFORD, Miss. | A year ago, Hugh Freeze heard the high expectations being placed on his program.

He bristled.

The Ole Miss coach tried to warn media and fans alike that his team was too thin and too young to contend for an SEC Western Division title. The Rebels, coming off a 7-6 season in Freeze's inaugural campaign, had been fortunate in 2012.

Freeze was prophetic. In 2013, injuries piled up for the Rebels from the very beginning of the season. Ole Miss lost wide receiver Vince Sanders to a broken collarbone on the second day of fall camp. Sanders didn't return to form until the second half of the season.

The Rebels lost offensive guard Aaron Morris to a knee injury in the first half of the Rebels' season-opening win over Vanderbilt. Linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche was injured in the same game and didn't return to his 2012 form at any point in 2013.

Defensive end C.J. Johnson had to be shut down after four games due to a leg injury. Quarterback Bo Wallace, who required major shoulder surgery after the 2012 season, struggled with arm strength as the 2013 season rolled on, taking away the deep ball from Freeze's arsenal. Freshmen Evan Engram and Robert Nkemdiche missed time due to injuries.

Adversity had its way with the Rebels. After a hot start, including a win at Texas that put Ole Miss in the polls and the national spotlight, Freeze's team struggled to stay on its feet. Ole Miss lost consecutive games to Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M to kill any title hopes. Following a four-game winning streak, including an upset of LSU, the Rebels finished with a thud. Missouri out-scored Ole Miss in Oxford and then the Rebels breathed life back into the Mississippi State program with a lackluster performance in a 17-10 overtime loss in Starkville.

This spring, however, Freeze isn't shying away from lofty expectations. Instead, Ole Miss seems to be embracing them. Wallace returns for his senior season, his shoulder stronger than its been since early in the 2012 season. Sophomore wide receiver Laquon Treadwell seems poised for a breakout season after catching 72 passes as a freshman and 13 of the Rebels' top 15 tacklers from last season are back.

The outside expectations, by the way, are quite high. One publication recently put Ole Miss at No. 8 in its preseason top 25. Multiple analysts have intimated that the Rebels could be the surprise contender _ or winner _ in the SEC West. The Rebels' schedule is favorable. Ole Miss gets Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State at home and figure to be favorites in at least two league road games - at Vanderbilt and at Arkansas.

For Ole Miss to finally break through and get to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game, however, the Rebels will need an abundance of good fortune on the injury front. Freeze has rebuilt the train wreck of a program he inherited from Houston Nutt, but depth remains a concern in a league where depth issues typically ruin title dreams.


Can Bo Wallace take the next step?

The 6-foot-3, 205-pound senior enters his final season ranked second in Ole Miss history in total offense yards (7,085), passing yards (6,340) and 300-yard passing games (7), third in completions (518), sixth in attempts (805), first in completion percentage (64.3) and passing efficiency (140.2) and fourth in passing TDs (40). Still, there are plenty who question Wallace's ability to lead the Rebels to the next echelon of SEC programs.

Wallace reduced his interceptions from 18 in 2012 to 10 last year despite playing with a weak shoulder that prevented him from making some of the deep throws he completed in his first season in Oxford. Wallace was also limited in the running game as a junior, especially later in the season. Barry Brunetti, who has since graduated, handled a lion's share of the short-yardage and red-zone offense. Redshirt freshman Devante Kincade or junior college transfer Jeremy Liggins could theoretically assume Brunetti's role, but it seems more likely Wallace will get the opportunity to once again be a complete quarterback.

If he can handle that load, regain the muscle to make accurate deep throws and continue to limit turnovers, he could be in line for a special senior year.

Is Ole Miss' offensive line deep enough to survive a season?

Left tackle Laremy Tunsil allowed just one sack last season as a true freshman. Aaron Morris is back after missing a season with a knee injury. Justin Bell returns at the other guard spot following a strong showing in 2013. Then there are questions. Ben Still and Robert Conyers battled for the center spot in the spring. That competition will likely continue in August. Junior college transfer Fahn Cooper enrolled at Ole Miss in January but had to return to the Chicago area to complete his academic requirements. Cooper is expected back later this month.

Cooper will likely be asked to play a huge role immediately. Ole Miss' offensive line is Manute Bol-thin, especially considering the likely imminent departure of tackle Austin Golson. The sophomore-to-be played in 12 games last season, mostly at guard, and was a leading candidate to start at right tackle this fall.

Ole Miss will be able to field a solid first-unit offensive line this fall, but if the Rebels are to have any real depth, they'll need help. Former defensive tackle Carlton Martin worked at guard in the spring. Rivals100 guard Rod Taylor is expected to compete for immediate playing time and redshirt freshman Daronte Bouldin looked very impressive at times in the spring. Regardless of their level of impact, Ole Miss will always be an injury or two from having to adjust on the fly and an epidemic away from a complete disaster up front.

Can the fabulous freshmen dominate as sophomores?

Tunsil, Robert Nkemdiche, Treadwell, Tony Conner, Engram, Quincy Adeboyejo and Derrick Jones were all part of Ole Miss' heralded 2012 recruiting class. They all played huge roles last season. This spring, many of them _ and a few of their less heralded classmates _ appeared to take major strides - both on the field and in terms of assuming leadership.

Freeze needs those trends to continue. That group is the cornerstone of his rebuild in Oxford, and for the Rebels to contend in November, that 2012 signing class must make huge contributions.

Tunsil, Nkemdiche, Treadwell and Conner are already gaining NFL mentions, and they're two years away from draft eligibility. Ole Miss needs them to dominate, and they're all more than capable. Throw in running back Jordan Wilkins, cornerback Kailo Moore, quarterbacks Kincade and Ryan Buchanan, Bouldin and a handful of others who looked impressive in the spring and it's far from a reach that the 2012 class could leave Oxford as the most impressive group in modern Ole Miss history. If Ole Miss is going to be in the national conversation in the next 2-3 years, it will have to be.

Can the Rebels muster a pass rush?

Ole Miss managed just 20 quarterback sacks last season, with just 15 of those coming from defensive linemen. In short, Ole Miss couldn't get to the quarterback in 2013, and that deficiency often kept the Rebels' offense off the field and certainly led to several losses (Auburn, Texas A&M and possibly Mississippi State come to mind immediately).

C.J. Johnson is back after an injury derailed him in 2013. Freshman defensive end Marquis Haynes was terrific in the spring. Robert Nkemdiche was unblockable during the spring at defensive tackle. Just as importantly, Ole Miss' improved, deeper secondary should allow defensive coordinator Dave Wommack to take more chances and throw more looks at opposing offenses. The Rebels walked off the field following the Grove Bowl confident that they'll be more disruptive on defense in 2014, a conclusion that should _ if true _ lead to more victories.

Can Ole Miss be a SEC title contender in 2014?

That's the big question in Oxford. It's one that could be answered quickly. The Rebels open on Aug. 28 in Atlanta against Boise State and then travel to Nashville's LP Field nine days later for the league opener against Vanderbilt. If Ole Miss is 2-0 out of the gate, the build-up to the Oct. 4 home date with Alabama could be something Oxford hasn't seen since Eli Manning was walking through a jam-packed Grove in 2003. Ole Miss has Louisiana-Lafayette, an open date and Memphis on its slate between Vanderbilt and the Crimson Tide. If the Rebels are 4-0 when Nick Saban and Co. roll in, that game will be a national showcase of sorts for Freeze and his young program.

The next four weeks feature games at Texas A&M, home versus Tennessee, at LSU and at home against defending SEC champion Auburn. If the Rebels find a way to survive that stretch, the end of the season - at Arkansas, home versus Mississippi State - seems favorable.

The pieces appear to be in place for Ole Miss to contend, but some of those pieces are awfully fragile. It's more likely that the Rebels take a baby step of sorts (8-4 or 9-3, for example) than a quantum leap into title contention.

It's a certainty Ole Miss will open the season in Atlanta. However, it would be a sizable upset if the Rebels found themselves back in the Georgia Dome in early December.

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