Ole Miss breaks in new-look backfield with Alabama looming

Published 6:00 am Monday, September 12, 2016

Before the weekend, Akeem Judd was the only running back available on Ole Miss’ roster that had at least 50 collegiate carries to his name.

It’s the reality facing the Rebels’ depleted backfield.

No. 19 Ole Miss began life without Jordan Wilkins and Eric Swinney on Saturday, working in players who were simply going to provide depth at the position a few weeks ago but will now see their roles increase significantly behind Judd.

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Junior Eugene Brazley hasn’t gotten more than 26 carries in a season but is now Judd’s primary backup. Ole Miss will also need more out of third-year sophomore D.K. Buford, who got seven carries all of last season as a reserve, while redshirting is no longer an option for true freshman D’Vaughn Pennamon.

All three rotated with Judd against Wofford, helping Ole Miss rack up 176 rushing yards in a 38-13 win. Brazley carried four times for 39 yards, Buford ran three times for 18 yards, and Pennamon made his collegiate debut with 14 yards on six carries.

“I thought Eugene had some really good vision on some runs and had some really good cuts,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “I thought D.K. did also. (Pennamon), I thought finished a couple runs. It seemed like though he probably didn’t have as good of seams to hit it looked like at times. I thought Judd was pretty solid, too.”

Judd led the group with 64 yards on 11 carries before giving way to those that needed the experience late. The backs combined to average 5.6 yards per carry against an overmatched Wofford defense yet one that’s among the best at stopping the run in the Football Championship Subdivision and had the Southern Conference’s best run defense a season ago (148.5 yards allowed per game).

The competition will stiffen considerably when top-ranked Alabama (2-0) brings one of the nation’s deepest and most talented defensive fronts to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday (2:30 p.m., CBS). The Rebels picked up fewer than 3 yards an attempt against a Florida State defense that’s more like what they’ll see from the Crimson Tide, so Saturday’s tuneup was about getting some experience and confidence for a new-look backfield they’re going to need the rest of the season.

“I saw the stats and we were averaging about 5 yards a carry,” offensive coordinator Dan Werner said. “There were some where we got stuffed, but those guys run a run-stopping type of defense. We were pretty good with it today. We could’ve thrown it a lot more, but we said we really wanted to hand the ball off and see what we could do.”

The group’s ability to hold up in pass protection in one of the Southeastern Conference’s top passing offenses will be just as important as their contributions on the ground. The Rebels lost some girth with Wilkins (222 pounds) and Swinney (210) out of the fold, but Brazley (192) is the only back left who weighs less than 200 pounds.

“If we’re going to pass the ball, we’ve got to know what we’ve got to do on those pass plays to protect the quarterbacks,” Judd said. “Obviously people have to step up, which is part of the game. You’ve got to be prepared.”