Competition heating up in Ole Miss’ new-look backfield

Published 6:00 am Monday, August 13, 2018

There’s no shortage of options in Ole Miss’ backfield. Finding the best one — or the right combination — is becoming the challenge in fall camp.

Scottie Phillips, Eric Swinney, Armani Linton and Isaiah Woullard are receiving a bulk of the carries at running back. D.K. Buford and true freshman Tylan Knight are also getting looks as the competition to replace Jordan Wilkins heats up.

“Everybody’s coming out and competing every day,” Swinney said. “It’s really competitive in the room with everybody grinding and trying to get some playing time.”

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Wilkins was one of the most productive backs in the program’s recent history last season when he became Ole Miss’ first 1,000-yard rusher since Dexter McCluster in 2009, leaving plenty of production and experience behind when he was taken by the Indianapolis Colts in the fifth round of this year’s NFL Draft.

Depth was also initially a concern with Eugene Brazley also out of eligibility and D’Vaughn Pennamon suffering a significant knee injury in the second to last game of the season against Texas A&M, a recovery process that coach Matt Luke has said will keep Pennamon out until at least midway through this season. Ole Miss addressed its numbers by signing Phillips out of the junior college ranks, moving Linton over from safety in the spring and welcoming Woullard into the fold after the freshman grayshirted last season.

Phillips, who rushed for more than 2,200 yards the last two seasons at Jones County Junior College, impressed enough with his speed and ability to quickly pick up the offense to finish the spring at the top of the depth chart. The 5-foot-8, 212-pounder said there’s work to do with his pass protection.

“I feel like I did a good job retaining all the information that was thrown at me,” Phillips said. “I’m just learning the system to the best of my ability.”

Swinney has done what he can to help all the newcomers with the learning curve. The fourth-year junior is the primary threat to Phillips as the most experienced back available (42 career carries) with he and Phillips splitting first-team reps in camp. He also has a clean bill of health and said he finally began to feel like his old self this summer after leg and knee injuries cost him his first two seasons.

Being the only returning back that’s gone through a full season in Longo’s offense gives Swinney a leg up on the competition, but he’s not being stingy with his knowledge. In the rigorous SEC, having as deep of a rotation as possible is beneficial.

“I just try to lead guys in the right direction and helping them out with plays on and off the field,” Swinney said.

Woullard and Linton have gotten a majority of the second-team reps while Buford and Knight have rotated in behind them. Knight is “showing flashes every day,” Nix said, but the 5-7, 170-pounder, who’s also working as a kick returner, figures to be a situational player who could also line up in the slot if he plays offense this fall.

But with three weeks still left before the Rebels open the season against Texas Tech on Sept. 1 in Houston, nothing has been decided.

“It’s been really good (competition) from top to bottom,” Nix said. “I think these guys come out every day wanting to work. Scottie, Eric, Isaiah and Armani, one guy will have a good day and the next one will have one even better. … It’s been fun to work with them so far.”