2016 season preview: Ole Miss Rebels
For a brief moment early in the 2015 season, Ole Miss looked like a serious threat to make the College Football Playoff. They saw three players drafted in the first round of the NFL draft in left tackle Laremy Tunsil, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, but they still have enough talent to be a factor in the SEC this year, thanks to a star quarterback and talent from front to back on defense. Let’s take a look at what the Rebels’ 2016 looks like:
Both Treadwell and fellow wide receiver Cody Core have departed for the NFL, but people shouldn’t forget just how good quarterback Chad Kelly was for much of the 2015 season. The fifth-highest-graded returning quarterback in the nation, Kelly had big performances throughout the year, and graded positively in all of the final five games of the season. Wide receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow could be the player to replace Treadwell, after averaging 14.0 yards per catch and scoring five touchdowns last year. He dropped just two of the 38 catchable passes thrown his way in 2015, and at 6-3, fans should expect to see Kelly-to-Stringfellow put up big numbers.
As big a loss as Robert Nkemdiche is, the Ole Miss defensive line is capable of handling it with the talent available. D.J. Jones graded positively in every game last year, and impressed both as a pass rusher and against the run. Breeland Speaks excelled as a run defender in 2015, and should have a big impact in that role again next year, provided he can stay on the field. He’s currently awaiting team discipline after a DUI arrest, and could miss all or part of the season-opener. Linebacker DeMarquis Gates impressed as a sophomore, particularly against the run, and is a candidate for a breakout year after recording 33 tackles resulting in a defensive stop a year ago. In the defensive backfield, the loss of their highest-graded defensive back Mike Hilton is arguably the toughest hole to fill defensively, with no Ole Miss returning defensive back grading any better than slightly above average last year.
There’s talent on defense, but Kelly is the star of the show and will be the key factor in how far the Rebels can go this season. He was particularly impressive throwing the ball downfield, completing 35-of-68 passes traveling 20 yards or more downfield for 1,218 with 16 touchdowns and three interceptions. Grading positively both when pressure got to him and when the Ole Miss offensive line kept him clean, he’ll be hoping to avoid the early season slump that hurt their season last year. An underrated aspect of his game is his running ability, where he made a pretty big impact last year, with only Tennesee’s Joshua Dobbs grading higher as a runner among returning SEC quarterbacks. If he can continue to improve, there’s no reason to think that he can’t be in the Heisman Trophy discussion, and have Ole Miss in the College Football Playoff discussion as well.
Breakout player to watch
With Nkemdiche in the NFL now, the opportunity for D.J. Jones to step up and become a star of the defensive line is there for the taking. He played just 514 snaps last year but made a huge impact both as a pass rusher and as a run defender. Rushing the passer 310 times, he registered 26 total pressures, including four hits and four sacks. Only Texas A&M’s Daylon Mack had a higher grade against the run among returning player on the interior of the defensive line in the SEC, so Jones could be ready to become one of the best defensive linemen in the nation, and a force up front for the Ole Miss defense.