Strong spring has Ole Miss optimistic

Published 12:15 am Sunday, April 6, 2014

By David Brandt

The Associated Press

 OXFORD — Linebacker Deterrian Shackelford says Ole Miss is ready to compete among the Southeastern Conference’s best teams next season.

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The Rebels are optimistic after wrapping up spring practice Saturday with the annual Grove Bowl. The offense edged the defense 15-12 in a modified scoring system that awarded points based on specific achievements.

Third-year coach Hugh Freeze said players on both sides of the ball had good moments. Senior quarterback Bo Wallace completed 10 of 21 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown. Junior I’Tavius Mathers rushed for 121 yards on just four carries.

The Rebels finished 8-5 last season, including a victory over Georgia Tech at the Music City Bowl. They’re expecting even more success next fall.

“The things we can do this year — it’s no dream,” Shackelford said. “We know we’ve got the pieces to the puzzle and the time is now. We feel a sense of urgency. There’s no more we’ve got to get this or that. We’re in a great position and we’ve got a lot of veterans coming back.”

Ole Miss expects to return 15 starters from last season, including nine on defense. The Rebels are counting on a talented group of sophomores, who have almost all lived up to expectations after coming to Oxford as arguably the most hyped freshman class in school history.

Sophomore Laquon Treadwell is expected to step into the No. 1 receiver role after Donte Moncrief left school a year early to begin his professional career. Treadwell caught 72 passes for 608 yards and five touchdowns last season.

“Laquon has a chance to be really, really special,” Freeze said. “Some of the things he’s done — he’s just so strong and gifted.”

Treadwell caught two passes for 46 yards and a touchdown Saturday. Another sophomore, tight end Evan Engram, caught two passes for 77 yards.

Two more sophomores will also be among the starters on the offensive line. Laremy Tunsil is entrenched as the starting left tackle after a steady freshman season, while Austin Golson is one of the leading candidates at right tackle.

Then there’s defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, who was the consensus No. 1 recruit in the nation. The 6-foot-4, 277-pounder missed two games last season with a hamstring injury, but still finished third on the team with eight tackles for a loss.

“I just think our young kids are so mature,” Wallace said. “They’re mature beyond their years. It has a feel of a very veteran group. A lot of those young kids got to play a lot of games last fall. Our chemistry’s as good as it’s ever been since I’ve been here. You can tell in practice and the way we compete.”

Wallace is the Rebels’ unquestioned starting quarterback, but there is plenty of competition for the backup spot.

Two redshirt freshmen, DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan, are the main candidates. Buchanan completed 6 of 10 passes for 100 yards on Saturday while Kincade was 5-of-8 for 57 yards and touchdown. He also rushed for 38 yards on six carries.

The good news for Freeze is he finally has some depth — not just at quarterback but at most spots on the roster. That wasn’t necessarily the case during his first two seasons at Ole Miss.

“Beyond a shadow of a doubt, we’re a better football team than we were two years ago or even last year,” Freeze said. “Does that mean expectations grow exponentially? I have no idea what that means in the win-loss column. No one in this conference is going backward.”