Ole Miss Football Practice Report: Halfway There

Published 4:00 pm Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Ole Miss football got back to work after its first open practice last weekend, hitting the halfway point of the spring season with workouts on a warm Tuesday morning in Oxford.

This Saturday, April 8, the Rebels will hold their second open practice to the public inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, with a tentative start time of 10:45 a.m. CT. Fans should park in the SJB Pavilion parking garage and enter through gate 33 in the southwest corner. Gates will open at 10:15 a.m. and seating will be available in the south grandstand.

Spring practice will culminate with the annual Grove Bowl, presented by Mississippi HomeCare on April 15. Practice times are subject to change. Stay tuned to the Ole Miss football Twitter account for weekly updates prior to each practice.

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Head coach Lane Kiffin spent time Tuesday gauging the progress made so far this spring, not just with the quarterback competition, but the team as a whole at the halfway mark of the spring practice season.

Ole Miss is coming off a successful 8-5 campaign and returns several key pieces such as sophomore running back Quinshon Judkins, but the Rebels also lost several crucial players on both sides of the ball and are in the early stages of the installation of a new defensive system. Add in 20 new mid-year enrollees to the mix for spring ball before the rest of the signing class arrives in the summer, and the spring evaluation period becomes all the more crucial.

“After a couple of weeks, I thought there have been some really good things,” Kiffin said. “The offense is ahead of the defense, which is probably what you would expect with a new scheme on defense and a lot of new parts. Very pleased with the quarterback production. Leading with Jaxson (Dart), he’s had a really good couple of weeks and a really good Saturday, so that’s great to see. Still got a lot of work to do. Still got some holes in the next window to work on, especially defensively.”

Kiffin specifically called out the play of returning junior QB Jaxson Dart, but also gave praise to transfers Walker Howard and Spencer Sanders on their adjustment to a new and fast-paced offensive system at Ole Miss.

“I think (Howard and Sanders) are doing a really good job,” Kiffin said. “I think both are learning new systems that are very different from the system they were in. And Spencer has been limited from a physical standpoint. I think any time you have guys like that, they’ll be a little behind and then make a jump later in the spring or early fall camp.”

Building depth at every position – not just quarterback – was a big priority for the Rebels this past offseason, and Kiffin has liked the mix of competition across the board so far this spring.

“I think you’re seeing (depth building) at linebacker, you’re seeing that at offensive line especially,” Kiffin said. “We’re nowhere near playing games, so we really don’t have (ones) as much, so we’re rotating competition in there. I think when it’s all said and done, including guys we add in this next window, they’re not all gonna start. A number of them will be significant backups.”

Last Thanksgiving, senior defensive tackle and Oxford native JJ Pegues was in the midst of an already excellent Egg Bowl when the most exciting moment of his season got called in the huddle: the former tight end was coming in, not to block, but to get open for the Rebels in the endzone.

And get open he did, hauling in a one-yard touchdown pass from Jaxson Dart in the second quarter of the biggest rivalry game in his home state.

“It felt great, and hopefully I get a lot more chances to catch more touchdowns,” Pegues said. “It was just a wholesome moment being able to do it in your hometown and being able to do it front of my parents and friends I went to high school with. It felt great.”

Pegues was a mainstay backup for a talented Rebel defensive line unit in 2022, and he hopes to lead the way for what looks to be another great position group for Ole Miss in 2023. Pegues played in 12 games and tallied 26 tackles, 5.0 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks and swatted down two passes while also forcing three QB hurries.

“Me and a couple guys like (Cedric Johnson) and Jared Ivey, I feel like this is our year,” Pegues said. “We have to have leaders on the field for the defense, and we’re just trying every day to show what we do and lead in front.”

For Kiffin, he says the next step for Pegues in 2023 is consistency.

“(We’re looking) for JJ to be really consistent,” Kiffin said. “He made a lot of plays, and we discussed this with him toward the end of the year, just being a more consistent player all the time, an every down defensive lineman. NFL teams are watching and are excited about him, so he has that ability. I think (the defensive line), when healthy, has a really good chance to maybe be for sure one of the better groups, if not the best on our team. Cedric, obviously before he got hurt, was pretty dominant. I think that made a big difference in our defensive play late in the year.”

On the other side of the ball, Ole Miss added depth to its tight end room this offseason with the addition of Memphis tight end Caden Prieskorn. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound senior from Lake Orion, Michigan brings a blend of aerial threat and blocking prowess to the Rebel offense.

At Memphis, Prieskorn was one of the top pass catchers in the American, earning first-team All-AAC after nabbing 48 catches for 602 yards and seven scores. For his efforts, Prieskorn was named a semifinalist for the John Mackey Award, given out annually to the nation’s top tight end.

“I think (Prieskorn) is a really kind of do-it-all consistent tight end, when you watch him from last year,” Kiffin said. “Very big frame, seems like over our time here we’ve had more specialty tight ends. He’s a bigger frame than I guess anybody we’ve had, and that makes a difference in blocking and point of attack. We were excited to get him and add him to our group, a very proven tight end that has NFL measurables, not necessarily just as a receiver or a shorter blocker.”

The addition of Prieskorn gives Ole Miss a powerful one-two punch at tight end as well, as he joins junior Michael Trigg in the position group. Trigg impressed early on in 2022 before injuries forced him to miss six of the last seven games.

“I feel like we complement each other so well,” Prieskorn said. “I do some stuff he does well, and he does some stuff that I don’t do as well. I feel like it’s been a great one-two punch.”

Learning Ole Miss’ lightning-quick pace of play will be key for Prieskorn and all the new Rebels on the offense, as they join a squad that ended the 2022 regular season tied for the FBS lead at 20.7 seconds per play.

“The tempo, the speed. How fast we play here has probably been the biggest adjustment for me,” Prieskorn said. “It’s SEC football, it doesn’t get any better.”