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Rippee: Two things I think, know and am eager to find out as Ole Miss battles Arkansas

Call it a pillow fight, a rock fight or a drunken wrestling match. Whatever phrase you wish, Ole Miss and Arkansas will take the field on Saturday and one team will earn a victory. 

This is the debut of a new Friday column, in which I outline a couple things I know, a couple things I think and a couple things I am eager to find out about Saturday’s match up.

Things I know:

1. Ole Miss will play more offensive linemen than the six it played in the loss to Memphis. Don’t believe me? Ask Matt Luke, who made that same proclamation on Monday and cited Nick Broeker as the first guy in line to play. The Rebels were putrid up front in last week’s loss. There is no other way to describe it. The left side of the line in particular, manned by an undersized left tackle in Michael Howard and a relatively inexperienced Royce Newman at guard, was preyed up on by the Memphis defensive line.

“There were some mistakes made, but we can put them in a little bit better position too,” Luke said.We’re going to play a few more guys. We can get better on that side of the ball in a hurry.”

Ole Miss’ problems up front don’t end there. Center Eli Johnson struggled and the collective performance from the offensive line wasn’t close to the level needed to win a football game against an opponent with pulse.  The issue is layered. The unit has little-to-no depth and its starting five has varying degrees of experience. The Rebels need a couple reserves they can count on, but they also need their starters to be flexible.

“There are really seven guys we are looking at right now and we are looking for an eighth guy to step up,” offensive line coach Jack Bicknell said. “Until they do, we are going to find the best combination of playing those guys and use it.”

What does that look like? Does Ben Brown play some center? Can Broeker, a true freshman, hold up at the most difficult of the five slots? What is to make of Bryce Mathews — a guy the coaching staff is trying to make into a utility man and the six lineman who can be plugged anywhere. 

The line will look different. The combinations will be more diverse. But will the results be any better?

2. The carries dispersion amongst the running backs will be different. Last week, Scottie Phillips had 19 carries, Jerrion Ealy ran it four times and Snoop Conner only touched the football one time. That wasn’t part of Rich Rodriguez’s plan going in and it was more so a product of the Rebels offensive dysfunction. The offense only totaled 52 snaps. It was behind the chains often and the three-and-outs added up. 

Ealy in particularly will likely touch the football more and it won’t be a coincidence that the offense will be function better if he does.

“He and a couple of other skill guys, we have to find a way to get them more touches,” Rodriguez said. “Jerrion has a lot of talent and is pretty sharp. He is learning quite a bit and his role is going to continue to increase.”

Two things I think:

1. I think Ole Miss will be without Braylon Sanders. Luke described Sanders, who is dealing with a hamstring injury he suffered in the second quarter at Memphis and did not return, as “very limited” in practice on Wednesday. Sanders was labeled a game-time decision. If he is unable to play, the Rebels will be without their most experienced receiver. Slot receiver Elijah Moore’s workload will increase as an effect of this, but who will make their presence felt on the outside?

“All of us have to step up,” Moore said. “It isn’t just one guy. Offensive line, receivers, all of us have to step up. A lot of things have to happen for a play to develop. We all have to step up.”

Will Miles Battle or Demarcus Gregory put together their most complete performance since joining the program? What impact will junior college transfer Dontario Drummond make. Wide receivers coach Jacob Peeler declared in the preseason that he wants his unit to be deeper this year. If Sanders is unable to suit up, that depth will be tested quickly.

1. Arkansas will play two quarterbacks. Transfer Ben Hicks, who played under Chad Morris at SMU for two years before Morris took the gig in Fayetteville, won the starting job over Texas A&M transfer Nick Starkel. But Starkel went 4-of-5 off the bench last week for 80 yards an interception. Hicks was a pedestrian 14-of-29 for 143 yards.

Some view Starkel as the better quarterback with more upside, but Hicks had the upper hand with the familiarity of Morris’ system. The Athletics’ Kelli Stacy said on Wednesday’s podcast she anticipates both will play. But in what capacity and how much?

Two things I am eager to learn:

  1. Will Ole Miss be able to contain Arkansas running back Rakeem Boyd, and to what extent? The Rebels were better in week one than they were at any point last year, but Memphis running back Patrick Taylor still averaged four yards per carry. He ran it 27 times for 128 yards and a score. The Rebels weren’t exactly the 1985 Chicago Bears, but there was tangible proof of improvement. 

“It seems like Boyd has been there for a long time,” Luke said. “I just remember vividly in the game last year that he has the ability to run through you. He can make you miss, he is just a very good back. (Devwah) Whaley is really good too so they have a really good one-two punch there. We’ll have our hands full trying to stop it.”

Boyd torched the Rebels in Little Rock. He tallied 119 yards on seven carries, including a 69-yard touchdown run before he was knocked out of the game with an injury. Boyd has the ability to do damage between the tackles and makes up one half of a formidable one-two punch alongside Devah Whaley. The duo will test just how improved this Ole Miss front seven is. 

2. What does chapter two of Matt Corral look like? In an offseason in which he was thrust into both the brightest spotlight and a leadership role fit for an upperclassman, Corral struggled mightily in the season opener. Some of it was the ineptitude of the offensive line, some of it was the receivers not being able to create separation. But some of if was poor decisions and inaccurate throws on Corral’s part. He finished at 9-of-19 for 94 yards and an interception. 

“He made some really good decisions and some poor ones,” Luke said. “In your first start, that happens. There are some things we can do to help him with the o-line and receivers. We have to get the ball out quicker and if we want to take a shot downfield, hold up in protection for him.”

Ole Miss won’t win if the offense doesn’t offer more a vertical passing threat than it was against Memphis. That is stating the obvious, but that starts with Corral. He has to complete around 60 percent of his passes and he has to make better reads on some of the run-pass option looks Rodriguez dialed up. Rodriguez needs to put Corral in better situations than he did at times last week, but the bottom line is that Corral has to perform better. Will he?

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