- Edward Aschoff, College Football
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There's no denying that what Hugh Freeze has done in his three years at Ole Miss has been nothing short of impressive. This was a drowning program, and now it's been to three straight bowl games.
Now, with the Rebels returning a handful of talent on both sides of the ball, expectations will be even higher in 2015, and Freeze knows that. But if Ole Miss is going to take that next step in its quest for an SEC West title, the offense has to be more consistent. The Rebels are looking for a new quarterback and the running game has to get going, but if the offensive line doesn't play with more consistency, the Rebels won't make a move in 2015.
Position to improve: Offensive line
Why it was a problem: The Rebels struggled with consistency up front for most of the 2014 season. When all was said and done, the Rebels gave up the third-most sacks in the SEC (31) and allowed 2.8 sacks per game in SEC play. Ole Miss’ line also struggled helping anyone with the ball behind the line of scrimmage, as the Rebels finished 13th in the league by allowing 89 tackles for loss (6.9 per game). Ole Miss dealt with injuries but kept that starting line intact for most of the season. However, the on-field production just wasn’t good enough at times to keep the offense going. For as poorly as quarterback Bo Wallace played at times, the line broke down too often in big games and failed to create enough lanes up front, as the Rebels allowed 3.3 sacks per game in their four losses and averaged just 88.8 rushing yards in those losses. Ole Miss dipped below 80 yards rushing four times last season, including totaling just 72 combined yards in losses to Arkansas and TCU (9 yards on 0.24 yards per carry).
How it can be fixed: Freeze has not shied away from the fact that the depth along the offensive line isn’t adequate to consistently compete in the SEC. He was absolutely right last season, but the good news for the Rebels is they return their entire starting lineup from the 2014 season. Star left tackle Laremy Tunsil will miss considerable time in the offseason after breaking his leg in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, as will starting left guard Aaron Morris, who suffered another ACL injury before the bowl game. While the Rebels would prefer to have a complete line, this will at least help get some younger guys into the rotation during the spring. Fahn Cooper and Rod Taylor -- both signees in the 2014 class -- saw good time last season, but their inexperience showed, so spring development will be key. As cliché as this sounds, Ole Miss’ line needs its younger members to get more reps between the start of spring practice and the start of the 2015 season. With the entire starting five coming back, the reserves need to get more comfortable with meaningful reps. Pure and simple, development and reps are essential for this crew getting better in 2015.
Early 2015 outlook: With all five starters returning in 2015, the Rebels will bring back 102 combined starts from those guys. Now, that clearly hinges on Morris (31 career starts) being able to recover from his ACL injury. Also, the Rebels should get back transfer Christian Morris, who missed the entire 2014 season because of injuries. That’s a pretty good foundation to start with, and the Rebels are hoping to really build on their depth up front with what’s shaping up to be a pretty solid offensive line recruiting class. Ole Miss currently has three ESPN 300 offensive linemen committed, including No. 3 guard Javon Patterson, who is already on campus. Fellow ESPN 300 recruit Drew Richmond (OT) is committed but has flirted with Alabama, Ohio State and Tennessee. Keeping him in this class will be crucial for the Rebels as they look to create solid SEC depth up front for this season and beyond.
Ole Miss needs to improve its offensive line play to take the next step in 2015.