OL, defense spring concerns for Rebels

Published 12:00 pm Friday, March 4, 2016

Ole Miss has a quarterback, a deep group of wide receivers even with the departures of Laquon Treadwell and Cody Core, both starters back at corner and experience at running back and along the defensive line.

Head coach Hugh Freeze hopes to start filling in the gaps everywhere else this spring.

The Rebels began spring practice this week with the offensive line and the linebacking corps being the chief concerns for Freeze heading into his fifth season. Ole Miss also has to find replacements for safeties Trae Elston and Mike Hilton, reliable playmakers for multiple years on the back end.

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“The biggest question mark would be I think the middle of our defense being at linebacker and the safeties,” Freeze said. “We lost some really good players. I think we’ll be fine at corner, and I’m excited about some of these young safeties, too, that we have. But we’ll hopefully feel good at the end of 15 days about it.”

Every starting offensive lineman from the Sugar Bowl is gone, including left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who may end up as the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft. Ole Miss has some experience back in Robert Conyers, Jordan Sims, Rod Taylor, Javon Patterson and Sean Rawlings, but Conyers and Taylor will be the only ones older than a sophomore in the fall.

Conyers (knee), who’s moving back to tackle after splitting time at center last season, and Taylor (shoulder) aren’t participating in spring drills. Freeze said Jeremy Liggins is running with the first team at right tackle while redshirt freshman Alex Givens is with the first team at left tackle with senior Talbot Buys and redshirt freshman Michael Howard also repping there. Rawlings is working at center after filling in at right tackle last year as part of the shuffle created by Tunsil’s seven-game suspension as is true freshman Eli Johnson.

“Obviously this year more than others, it’s a bit different. We lost six guys,” Freeze said. “That’s a lot out of the offensive line room, but the other hand is we really like some of the ones we have. And then there’s some that we haven’t seen.”

On the defensive side, the Rebels realistically just need to fill one vacancy at safety with Tony Conner, who’s also not participating in spring practices as he rehabs his meniscus injury, set to return to Huskie, or nickel corner, in the fall. In the meantime, Freeze said C.J. Moore, A.J. Moore, Zedrick Woods, redshirt freshman Montrell Custis and true freshmen Myles Hartsfield and Greg Eisworth are rotating among the different safety spots along with junior C.J. Hampton, the incumbent at free safety.

Additional help

Perhaps no position is more unsettled than linebacker, and that’s with leading tackler DeMarquis Gates returning. Middle linebacker C.J. Johnson and Denzel Nkemdiche on the outside ran out of elgibility last year with few experienced options left behind them.

The Rebels have addressed that by making a couple of late additions to this year’s signing class. Ole Miss on Wednesday announced the addition of former Oregon State linebacker Rommel Mageo, a graduate transfer who will be immediately eligible, and followed that up with the signing of Iowa Western Community College linebacker Detric Bing-Dukes on Thursday.

Freeze said he expects Mageo and Bing-Dukes, a sophomore who will have three years to play his final three seasons of eligibility, to come in and “compete right away” for the middle linebacker spot.

“We feel like (Mageo) may be the guy,” Freeze said. “I don’t know that for sure. He’s got to come in and earn it like everyone else, and you guys know that’s a place we need help.”

Terry Caldwell, Temario Strong, Tayler Polk and Ray Ray Smith are also back among the linebacking corps while redshirt freshman Willie Hibbler, who spent last season as a scout-team tight end, will get a look at linebacker this spring, Freeze said, once he gets cleared for contact next week after recently breaking his hand.

Other injuries

Defensive end Fadol Brown (foot) will also be held out of spring practices while defensive tackle Issac Gross (neck), defensive tackle Herbert Moore (ACL), wide receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow (ankle) and running back Eric Swinney (stress fracture) will be limited in their participation.

Brown and Stringfellow were seen wearing walking boots during Thursday’s practice.