The lone constant through five games in an erratic Ole Miss offense has been running back Scottie Phillips, a junior college transfer tasked with filling the biggest perceived hole the Rebels had on the offensive side of the football heading into the season.
Phillips has done more than fill the void Jordan Wilkins — the program’s first 1,000 yard rusher since 2009 — left behind. Phillips has rushed for 563 yards on 78 touches, which is good for 7.2 yards per carry. He had 98 yards in an ugly loss to LSU and was really the only consistent form of offense Ole Miss had all night.
He is averaging 14.5 touches a game, but given the inconsistencies in the passing game — particularly against better defenses — will Phillips’ involvement increase as Ole Miss hits the teeth of its SEC schedule?
“We are never going to run into numbers,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “But when we get a good physical match up, we are certainly going to run the football. The way the offense is designed is to get to some grass. The offensive line has a really good job when we have numbers, and certainly Scottie is an explosive runner.”
Phillips is third in the SEC in rushing yards, sitting behind Kentucky standout Benny Snell (639) and Trayveon Williams (582) from Texas A&M. Snell is getting 23 touches per game and Williams is averaging slightly over 19 per game. Phillips averages a full yard more per carry than both backs, nearly two more yards per carry than Snell (5.6). Granted, Kentucky and Texas A&M run much different offenses than Ole Miss, and Snell is quite obviously more of a focal point of what the Wildcats want to do. But as hit-or-miss as Ole Miss has been in the passing game, it would do well to give Phillips the football a bit more.
“I think that is something we can do,” Phillips said. “Whatever we have to do to win is what we are going to do.”
Phillips had big shoes to fill when he stepped on campus in January. He inherited a veteran offensive line, which helps things. But he also makes life easier on them in some ways.
“His feet are unbelievable,” junior offensive tackle Greg Little said. “He makes people miss. When we are on a block and they come off late, his extra quick twist makes them miss. He is always running downhill, which makes the offensive line’s life easier. He is a north-and-south guy. That is a big plus about Scottie is getting downfield.”
Phillips exploded for 204 yards on 16 carries in his debut against Texas Tech. He struggled against Alabama, tallying just 44 yards on 12 carries. He’s rushed for 423 yards on 47 carries in in the Rebels’ three wins, compared to 142 yards on 28 carries in the two losses. Yes, most of the reason for that disparity is for the caliber of defenses the team faced. But it was apparent that Ole Miss got away from the running game in the losses to LSU and Alabama.
“I think Coach Longo is doing what he thinks will win the game,” Phillips said.
Some of that is falling behind on the scoreboard, but some of it can also be attributed to the Rebels pressing on offense and trying to do too much.
Longo’s offense hinges upon match ups on the perimeter and numbers in the box. He’ll tell you as much. But he’s also been consistent in saying the difference between his system and most other ‘air raid’ systems is an emphasis on a downhill running game. Will they lean on that more going forward?
“I think he is going to be our bell cow from here on out,” Little said. “We are going to lean on him a little more. Coach Longo sees him doing his job, so Coach Longo wants to give him more touches. Our job is to block for him and let him do what he does.”
A year ago, Longo’s offense sputtered through the first five games of the season, a stretch that saw the Rebels go 2-3. Wilkins ran for 269 yards on 53 carries during that stretch. Ole Miss went 4-3 in its last seven games, and the offense saw a noticeable jolt in production during the final five games of the season in particular. Wilkins carried it 102 times for 742 yards during that seven-game stretch. Wilkins’ success helped the offense find some semblance of balance and produce more consistently.
If Ole Miss is going to improve on offense in its last seven games this year, a heavier workload for Phillips could likely be why.
“I trust myself and my abilities,” Phillips said. “We need to be more consistent, convert on third downs and be more balanced offensively.”