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Ole Miss opens training camp with plenty of questions

Many of the questions surrounding Ole Miss these days pertain to what’s going on off the field, but the Rebels have some they have to try to get answered on it, too.

A noisy offseason, which included legal developments in the NCAA’s investigation into the program and the sudden resignation of head coach Hugh Freeze, gave way to actual football Wednesday night with the Rebels holding their first practice of training camp. Ole Miss, under the direction of former offensive line coach Matt Luke, will open the season Sept. 2 against South Alabama, but the Rebels have to get some things figured out on both sides of the ball before then.

The offense is the more stable of the two with all five starting linemen back along with quarterback Shea Patterson and another deep group of receivers led by sophomores Van Jefferson and A.J. Brown and redshirt freshman D.K. Metcalf. Senior Jordan Wilkins is eligible again after missing last season because of an academic credits snafu and will get his first crack at being the featured running back.

Replacing Evan Engram’s production at tight end is the unit’s most pressing issue.

The Rebels don’t have a player on the roster that possesses the rare skill set Engram had with his combination of size and speed in the middle of the field, but Ole Miss has numbers at the position even without sophomore Octavious Cooley, who’s suspended indefinitely because of a violation of team rules. Walk-ons Dawson Knox and Ty Quick emerged in the spring and started camp at the top of the depth chart while converted quarterback Jason Pellerin along with redshirt freshmen Jacob Mathis and Gabe Angel are other options that could provide more athleticism in Cooley’s absence.

The list of uncertainties is much longer for a defense that’s starting over under first-year coordinator Wesley McGriff after bottoming out last fall.

Junior Breeland Speaks and sophomore Benito Jones form a solid duo on the interior of the defensive line to complement rush specialist Marquis Haynes off the edge, but the Rebels are still looking for a secondary pass rusher to emerge for a defense that finished 96th nationally in sacks last season. Junior college signee Markel Winters, who racked up 16 sacks at Jones County Junior College last season, and Syracuse transfer Qaadir Sheppard could help apply more pressure.

“I think we look so much into pass rush and sacking the quarterbacks instead of just affecting the guy,” defensive line coach Freddie Roach said. “I’d much rather get hit once or twice a game than run off my spot continuously throughout the ballgame for 80, 60 plays, whatever it is. In my opinion, we need to not be so concerned about sacks and let’s start affecting this guy.”

Then there’s the second and third levels, which have been problem areas for a while.

Senior DeMarquis Gates is entrenched at outside linebacker after leading the Rebels in tackles each of the last two seasons, but there’s not much else among the linebacking corps in terms of proven production. Detric Bing-Dukes is the only other linebacker back that tallied more than 40 tackles a season ago and started camp as the starter in the middle, but he’ll miss the season opener because of a suspension stemming from his shoplifting arrest earlier this week.

Redshirt freshman Donta Evans could help there as could junior college transfer Brenden Williams, who could play inside or out. But true freshmen Josh Clarke and Mohamed Sanogo will likely be counted on to provide some reinforcement from Day 1.

Zedrick Woods is back at one safety spot, but the other one is still up for grabs. C.J. Moore and C.J. Hampton will continue that competition, but freshman C.J. Miller will join the mix. Luke didn’t rule out the possibility of Myles Hartsfield, who moved to corner in the spring after starting every game at safety last season, moving back to his old position if needed. Freshman Breon Dixon is in line to help out at nickel corner.

Fellow freshman D.D. Bowie, Ole Miss’ highest-ranked signee, could also help at safety, though most of his reps will come at corner. Luke isn’t ruling anything out as he takes the next month to thoroughly evaluate his team’s biggest unknowns.

“We’re always trying to get the best guys on the field whatever combination that is,” Luke said. “I had the same approach on the offensive line. How can we get our best players on the field? I think that’s what you have to find a way to do.”