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SEC 2015: Ole Miss' Running Game Looks for Improvement

Ole Miss' running game struggled in 2014 in key situations. Who could be key to it improving in 2015?

Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Outside of the quarterback position and wide receiver Vince Sanders, the Ole Miss offense returns every other starter and most major contributors for 2015. The majority of the wide receiving corps, the starting running back, an All-SEC tight end and the entire offensive line rotation return, but not all was well with the offense in 2014.

The running game placed 11th in the SEC in yards per attempt, but even that is skewed by a 400+ yard rushing performance against FCS foe Presbyterian. Against FBS competition, the Rebels ranked 13th in the SEC in both yards per game and yards per attempt, ahead of only Vanderbilt. Ole Miss' Stuff Rank (runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage) ranked 124th nationally at nearly 27%. More than one of every four runs for Matt Luke's offensive line was stopped at or behind the LOS.

Despite all the starters returning from 2014 along the offensive front, the only starters secure in their position are Laremy Tunsil at left tackle, Fahn Cooper at right tackle and probably Ben Still at center (though he was listed as "OR" with Robert Conyers in the 2015 preseason depth chart). Tunsil will have to show a full recovery from his broken leg suffered during the Peach Bowl, but should return to elite status. Cooper had a solid season as a first year junior college transfer but added depth along the line could allow Conyers to supplant Still at center. Last year due to a lack of depth, Conyers was also the backup tackle and was forced into significant playing time with an injury to Tunsil at LSU.

The real competition in the offensive line will be at the guard positions where a pair of seniors, Aaron Morris and Justin Bell, are looking to will have to fend off talented youngsters. Morris missed the Peach Bowl and spring practice after suffering his second ACL injury and, while Bell has played significantly in his time in Oxford, he was pushed last year by rising sophomore Rod Taylor. Incoming freshman Javon Patterson enrolled for spring and should get for significant playing time (Patterson was named preseason 3rd team All SEC by CFB Matrix before playing a snap in college). After a spell at tackle in spring, backup 300 pound tight end/converted quarterback Jeremy Liggins could offer blocking some after having no experience at any line position before playing tight end last year.

Another factor that may help the Rebels' running game is the threat of a deep ball. Ever since injuring his throwing shoulder at Tulane in 2012, Bo Wallace lacked zip on the ball and often struggled with deep balls. If whichever of Ryan Buchanan, Chad Kelly and Devante Kincade emerges as a starter can connect with any consistency on deep throws to Quincy Adeboyejo, Laquon Treadwell or Evan Engram, defenses could loosen slightly for the running game simply based on having to respect the deep quarters of the field in ways they generally did not for the last two and a half years.

The last factor in the running game is, of course, running back. Jaylen Walton is back for his senior year, but backups I'Tavius Mathers and Mark Dodson transferred out to Middle Tennessee and Memphis respectively (with Dodson subsequently leaving Memphis for Murray State). Jordan Wilkins was second on the team in rushing in 2014 and seemed to emerge late in the season as the coaching staff's favorite for a change in pace to the speedy Walton. Akeem Judd came in as a highly touted junior college running back last year, but redshirted. He's one of the few running backs on the roster that offers bulk (5'11", 222), but one has to wonder if he will be able to emerge from the pack after redshirting as a junior college transfer. True freshman Eric Swinney was being counted on for carries but suffered a stress fracture in his leg in summer drills that will likely lead to a redshirt.

If the running game can improve for the Rebels in 2015, the team should meet or exceed 2014's 9-3 regular season record. In hindsight, that record is practically unbelievable considering the struggles of this part of the offense in 2014.