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Five burning questions for Ole Miss at SEC Media Days

College football is back. Well, unofficially anyway.

The games don’t start for another seven weeks, but the annual circus that is Southeastern Conference Media Days begins today at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Alabama. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, Shea Patterson, Javon Patterson and Breeland Speaks will take their turns in front of the microphones Thursday.

What will they be asked? There’s no limit to the possibilities, but here are five questions that are sure to be posed in some form to Freeze and the Rebels’ player representatives:

The NCAA investigation

You can’t talk about Ole Miss football these days without including the NCAA’s long-running investigation into rules violations.

Already facing scholarship reductions and a bowl ban for the upcoming season, the Rebels are waiting to see just how bad it may get after the school publicly released its response to the amended Notice of Allegations last month. The Rebels are contesting a handful of the 15 Level I allegations, including the failure-to-monitor charge against Freeze and the lack of institutional control.

There’s also the Rebel Rags lawsuit stemming from another Level-I charge. The Oxford-based retail apparel store is suing Lindsey Miller and Mississippi State players Leo Lewis and Kobe Jones for defamation for what the store believes are baseless claims made by the trio in their interviews with the NCAA that they received thousands of dollars worth of free merchandise.

Charles Merkel Jr., Rebel Rags’ lawyer, is planning to depose Lewis and Jones while Miller has filed a motion to dismiss. The store wants the charge removed from the NOA completely.

Meanwhile, the NCAA is supposed to file its response to Ole Miss’ response at the end of the month before a hearing with the Committee on Infractions is scheduled for sometime this fall. Stay tuned.

Is Shea Patterson ready to lead?

Ole Miss is taking the emerging face of its program to Media Days, so the Rebels are counting on it.

Perhaps just as important as his arm strength, quick release and mobility in the pocket will be Patterson’s ability to mature quickly in the leadership department at a position that requires it. The former five-star prospect is three games into his collegiate career after taking over late last season for the injured Chad Kelly, but teammates said the normally soft-spoken Patterson started taking control with his words and his actions this spring.

With a brutal road stretch early at California, Alabama and Auburn with a bowl ban already in place, this season will become a trying one quickly for Ole Miss if it’s not able to win some of those. The Rebels need that from the player everybody else is naturally going to look to during good times and bad.

Can Breeland Speaks and the rest of the defensive line bounce back?

Linebacker and secondary play plagued Ole Miss’ defense all season last year, but a defensive line that was expected to be much better also flamed out for a unit that finished 120th nationally in run defense and 96th in sacks.

Edge rusher Marquis Haynes is the only defensive linemen returning that recorded more than 40 tackles and double-digit tackles for loss a season ago. Expectations were high for Speaks after finishing with more tackles than Robert Nkemdiche in 2015 despite starting just two games, but he eventually lost his job on the interior to freshman Benito Jones and finished with just 28 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss.

Jones, a former five-star recruit, had a productive freshman season with 39 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss, finishing the spring at the top of the depth chart alongside Speaks on the interior. Ross Donelly, Austrian Robinson and Josiah Coatney, who redshirted last season, will provide depth inside while the Rebels need to find another consistent pass rusher outside of Haynes.

The group needs to be more disruptive up front, and it has the talent to do so.

Who’s next at tight end?

Ole Miss doesn’t have one player that can adequately replace a player like Evan Engram, who used a unique skill set to become the school’s all-time leading receiver as a tight end and a first-round draft pick.

But Ole Miss has options it can sort through.

At 6-foot-3 and 257 pounds, Octavious Cooley may be the closest thing the Rebels still have on the roster that comes close to Engram’s athleticism. Dawson Knox got some praise from coaches this spring while former quarterback Jason Pellerin is moving to the position full-time.

Redshirt freshman Jacob Mathis, who didn’t practice this spring because of a broken foot, is another option at 6-4 and 233 pounds. Regardless of who ends up starting, Ole Miss will have to go with a committee at the position to use their strengths and get the kind of matchups in the middle of the field it got with Engram.

Which newcomers will play immediately?

Ole Miss signed the lowest-ranked class in Freeze’s tenure in February, but throw the ratings out the window at this point. Newcomers are going to have play right away.

It will be worth noting who Freeze and the players mention as instant contributors, but the biggest needs are on a defense that was one of the worst in the nation last season, particularly at linebacker and in the secondary. Ole Miss signed Brenden Williams out of the junior college ranks with the expectation of him helping immediately at linebacker while freshmen Josh Clarke, Mohamed Sanogo and Zikerrion Baker are also prime candidates for early playing time there.

Junior college signee Javien Hamilton and freshman Breon Dixon got significant reps at corner and safety, respectively, this spring. Morton product D.D. Bowie, the Rebels’ highest-ranked signee, is a rangy athlete that will likely find his way into the rotation at corner early.

Markel Winters, another junior college product, could evolve into that complementary pass rusher after racking up 16 sacks last season at Jones County Junior College.

Davis Potter is the Ole Miss beat writer and college sports editor of the Oxford EAGLE. Contact him at davis.potter@oxfordeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.