Incremental improvement has been the main storyline of Hugh Freeze’s three-year tenure as head coach at Ole Miss. Freeze’s squad has managed to continually get a little bit stronger and a little bit better in each of the past three seasons, going from seven wins in 2012, to eight wins in 2013, and then to nine wins in 2014.
The next logical step for the Rebels is to become a true championship contender in 2015.
This is the year many fans have been pointing to ever since Freeze and his staff assembled a widely praised a top-5 recruiting class back in the winter of 2013.
Many of the high-profile names from that group such as WR Laquon Treadwell, DT Robert Nkemdiche and OT Laremy Tunsil have emerged as standout starters who are on the verge of becoming true superstars in the third year of their collegiate careers.
Treadwell, Nkemdiche and Tunsil are the three Rebels that will surely garner the most praise and attention this offseason. However, Freeze has built a roster that features plenty of other top-tier talent as well.
Here’s a look at the Mississippi’s top 10 players for 2015.
1 – WR Laquon Treadwell
-A serious leg injury cut Laquon Treadwell’s sophomore season short to just nine total games. In those games, however, Treadwell was able to establish himself as one of college football’s fastest-rising young star wideouts.
The 6’2’’, 229-pound former- blue-chip 5-star recruit hauled in 48 passes for 632 yards and five touchdowns in 2014.
Treadwell is one of the most feared pass-catchers in the country. If he returns fully healthy, the future NFL first-round pick will undoubtedly be the Rebels’ No. 1 go-to offensive weapon in 2015.
2 – DT Robert Nkemdiche
Robert Nkemdiche has been projected to be an All-American caliber defensive force since he was a junior at Grayson High School in Georgia. As a sophomore in 2014, the former No. 1 overall prospect began to truly emerge as a dominant defender and started to live up to the lofty expectations that were bestowed upon him when he came out of high school.
The 6’4’’, 280-pound DT earned a spot on numerous All-American teams (AP, Sporting News, USA Today, CBS Sports) as well as first-team All-SEC honors following a standout sophomore campaign. He was the centerpiece of a stout run defense that allowed an average of just 3.4 yards per carry, and he was a player who consistently caused chaos in the trenches.
Nkemdiche has made the transformation from highly touted high school All-American to a proven difference-maker at the collegiate level. It’s time for the supremely gifted big man to now take the next step in 2015 and become the elite defensive difference-maker his potential warrants.
3 – OT Laremy Tunsil
We don’t yet know who will ultimately win the right to be the Rebels’ starting quarterback for the 2015 season. What we do know for certain, however, is that whoever ends up winning the battle will be one of the most well-protected signal-callers in college football. That’s because they’ll have one of the sport’s most reliable blindside bodyguards—left tackle Laremy Tunsil—keeping them safe.
Tunsil is only entering his junior year, yet he’s still one of the most experienced offensive lineman in the country. The two-year starter is coming off a fantastic 2014 performance for which he earned first-team All-SEC honors.
Like his teammates Treadwell and Nkemdiche, Tunsil was also one of the most heralded members of the team’s loaded 2013 recruiting class. Thus far, the 6’5’’, 305-pound former 5-star recruit has been as good as advertised. What’s really scary is that Tunsil is only just beginning to tap into his true potential.
4 – DB Tony Conner
You need a tracking device to keep tabs on Tony Conner. He’s the type of ball-hawk who can fly around and make plays all over the field.
This past season, the versatile nickel back made his presence felt in a variety of different ways, as he totaled 69 tackles, including 31 solo stops and nine tackles for loss. The 6’0’’, 217-pound junior is an asset in all phases of the game. He’s one of the toughest and most instinctive defenders in the nation.
After losing two key senior starters: Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt, the Ole Miss secondary will have some holes to fill this offseason. Luckily, Conner is the type of veteran linchpin leader that the unit can rally around for 2015.
5 – TE Evan Engram
Who’s the best tight end in college football?
There may not be a true definitive answer to that question at this point in the offseason. Evan Engram is one very worthy candidate who definitely deserves consideration for that title.
Engram was one of the most productive tight ends in the nation in 2014, finishing the season with 38 catches for 662 yards and two touchdowns. His 17.4 yards per catch average was the seventh best average of any receiver in the SEC.
Engram possesses the type of athleticism and separation speed that we’ve become accustomed to seeing from the current generation of receiving tight ends. The 6’3’’, 227-pound senior is a matchup nightmare who adds a crucial dynamic to the Rebels’ passing attack.
6 – DE Marquis Haynes
Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett and Tennessee DE Derek Barnett were the two freshman defensive linemen that everyone in the SEC was fawning over in 2014. Garrett and Barnett deserved the praise and adulation, but unfortunately their spectacular showings overshadowed Marquise Haynes’ own statement performance.
Haynes may not have been able to put up a double-digit sack total like Garrett or Barnett during his debut campaign. Still, he certainly proved that he was ready to dominate against SEC competition. The 6’3’’, 220-pound edge-rusher led Ole Miss with 7.5 sacks, which was tied for the ninth best total in the conference. He also racked up nine tackles for loss, seven quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles.
After spending the 2014 season watching Garrett and Barnett soak up the spotlight, Haynes should have the motivation he needs to spark a spectacular sophomore season.
7 – LB Denzel Nkemdiche
Unfortunately, Denzel Nkemdiche wasn’t blessed with the same type of size and raw physical gifts that his younger brother Robert was. Still, what Denzel lacks in the physical skills department, he more than makes up for with his aggressiveness, instincts and eye for finding the football.
After putting together an award-winning performance as a redshirt freshman in 2012, Nkemdiche has failed to replicate those results in either of the two following seasons.
Now a senior, the 5’11’’, 212-pound former Freshman All-American will be looking to reassert himself as a key defensive leader in 2015.
8 – LB C.J. Johnson
This offseason, C.J. Johnson is making the rather unusual transition from defensive end to middle linebacker. Some growing pains are obviously to be expected at this point in the process, but there’s no doubt that the experienced 6’2’’, 235-pound senior should be able to make the switch a success.
Johnson is coming off a 2014 season, in which he totaled four sacks and eight tackles for loss coming off the edge.
The former 5-star recruit was a standout inside linebacker back during his days at Philadelphia High School (MS). The Rebels are hoping that Johnson can tap into the mentality he had as a high school star and develop into a rock in the middle of the defense in 2015.
9 – RB Jaylen Walton
Ole Miss didn’t need Jaylen Walton to be a workhorse bell-cow back in 2014. All the Rebels needed him to be was an effective change-of-pace-back who could contribute as both a rusher and receiver when called upon.
Walton proved to be up for the challenge, as he handled the role perfectly. The 5’8’’, 166-pound senior rushed for 586 yards on just 106 carries (5.5 yards per carry), caught 19 passes for 206 yards and scored seven total touchdowns.
Though he may not have the prototypical size to be an every-down back, Walton has proven to be a valuable contributor to the Ole Miss offense.
10 – S Mike Hilton
It’s not often that a cornerback finishes the season as a team’s leading tackler. But that’s just what Mike Hilton did last season, when he totaled 71 tackles, including 48 solo stops, to go along with his three interceptions and seven pass breakups.
Now that the 5’9’’, 182-pound senior is making the move to safety to help fill the void left by Cody Prewitt, he’ll be in prime position to rack up plenty more take downs once again in 2015.
Just like Tony Conner, Hilton is yet another veteran stabilizing force for a defensive backfield that lost some if its most important pieces.
- WR Cody Core
- DT Isaac Gross
- QB Ryan Buchanan
- ROV Trae Elston
- RB Jordan Wilkins