Ole Miss is now five practices into fall camp and completed its third practice in shoulder pads Wednesday.
–Rich Rodriguez is encouraged by the depth the Rebels boast at the running back position. Senior Scottie Phillips would’ve been a 1,000 yard rusher last season had he not missed the final two games with an ankle injury and sophomore Isaiah Woullard gained experience with 84 touches for 482 yards last season. D’Vaughn Pennamon is slowly moving towards a clean bill of health after missing all of last season with a dislocated knee cap and torn ligaments stemming from an injury suffered in the penultimate game of 2017. Snoop Conner and five-star Jerrion Ealy will both play as freshmen, according to Rodriguez.
“Scottie is the proven guy but still needs to get in better shape as he is working to do,” Rodriguez said. “Isaiah is proven too. Jerrion Ealy is going to play. We have been pleased with his progress. Blue Pennamon is going to play a little and Snoop is going to play too. We have good competition and we really need to have three or four guys ready to do.”
Pennamon is perhaps the wildcard among this stable of backs. What can Ole Miss expect from a guy who hasn’t played in a game in nearly two years? How has his knee responded to what has been an arduous and lengthy rehab process? Pennamon recorded 53 carries in 2017 before the injury and was showing flashes of being a serviceable SEC running back.
“I don’t think he is fully at 100 percent where he trusts it, but he is not wearing a knee brace and is working himself into shape,” Rodriguez said. “He has a natural running ability and really natural ball skills. If he keeps working, he can help us.”
Conner arrived on campus in January and used the spring practice to vault himself squarely in the mix for playing time in what has become a crowded backfield. Conner tallied 10 carries for 52 yards in the Grove Bowl. He is currently at 215 pounds and is aiming to get to 225, which he says is his ideal playing weight. The most valuable thing Conner derived from the spring was a leg up on learning Rodriguez’ scheme, a new project for the entire position group no matter the degree of experience.
“They got me way ahead in the spring,” Conner said. “It is pretty fun. The offense is based off the running backs so it is pretty cool.”
— There hasn’t been much separation in the backup quarterback competition. True freshmen Grant Tisdale, Johny Rhys Plumlee and Kinkead Dent are all competing to earn the right to back up redshirt freshman Matt Corral. Tisdale and Dent participated in spring practice. Plumlee arrived on campus this summer. Rodriguez doesn’t anticipate clarity soon and noted the competition could extend a couple games into the season.
“We are not even close to determining who that is going to be and that may be a couple weeks into the season before we know,” Rodriguez said. “I like all three of them. We haven’t gone live with them much yet. I am debating whether to do that later on on camp. But I think it would benefit them to do that at some point.”
Tisdale took a few reps with the first team offense at practice, but reps were dispersed fairly equally among all three quarterbacks behind Corral.
— If there is one thing that keeps the coaching staff up at night, it is probably the lack of experience and depth on the offensive line. True freshmen Nick Broeker and Jeremy James are running with the second team at both tackle spots. During at least one set team of reps in practice on Wednesday, the entire second team offensive line was comprised of true freshmen: Broeker at left tackle, Carter Colquitt at left guard, Bryce Ramsey at center, Caleb Warren at right quard and James at right tackle.
“The whole second unit may be true freshmen,” Rodriguez said. “That is a little scary, but it is a really good group. Jack Bicknell has his work cut out for him. With freshmen, you are teaching them fundamentals and scheme. Upperclassmen usually have the fundamentals down. Bicknell is working them hard.”
Ben Brown worked with center in individual drills as Ole Miss works to form pseudo-depth up front by having starters play multiple positions.
Despite being only five practices in, it has become clear that James and Broeker are going to be thrust into action immediately. James is aware he has a long way to go between now and the season opener, but isn’t surprised he is in this position so soon.
“Speed, a lot of speed here” James said. “Coach Bicknell told us when he recruited us that he needed all of us to step up. This is something we have been working for.”
The program welcomed seven freshmen on the offensive line this summer. James finds comfort in knowing they are all learning quickly together.
“I think it is a good thing,” James said. “It is a good step forward. We just have to step up and do what we are supposed to. This summer we trained hard. We did as much as we can to prepare.”
— Demarcus Gregory is finally healthy. He suffered a torn ACL his senior year in high school and then tore his meniscus in the other knee three days into fall camp last season. Gregory is anxious to get on the field in his redshirt freshman year. He believes this has something to prove with the amount of talent leaving the receivers room off last year’s team.
“It’s competition out there every day,” Gregory said. “Peeler is going to best players in here. We have to go out there and compete. None of us have proved ourselves yet. We are hungry to prove ourselves out there.”
— Rodriguez says 70 percent of the offense has been installed, though it is not game specific. He is pleased with how receptive the freshmen have been in terms of understanding the offense.
PHOTO CREDIT: Petre Thomas — Ole Miss Athletics