Rebel Roll Call: Loss of Wilkins gives Ole Miss backfield new opportunities

Posted on Aug 22 2018 - 5:50am by Flint Christian

Running back Isaiah Woullard practices with a coach this summer during the first Rebel football practice of the season. Photo by Christian Johnson

In Phil Longo’s first season at the helm of the Ole Miss offense, the Rebels relied heavily on a high-flying passing attack. That reliance proved to be successful. With the return of a deep receiving core and efficient quarterback Jordan Ta’amu, nothing about the Rebels’ passing game looks poised to change in Longo’s second year.

However, Rebel running backs will play a vital role during the 2018 season, and Rebel fans can look forward to a more balanced scheme.

When Shea Patterson went down for the 2017 season with an injury, Longo adapted to his circumstances. No longer able to rely on the star power of Patterson through the air, the Rebels averaged 164.4 rushing yards per game with Ta’amu at quarterback after averaging only 94.7 in Patterson’s first six starts.

Additional responsibility makes this season’s backfield all the more interesting. During the 2017 season, Jordan Wilkins, who has since been selected in the fifth round of the NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts, returned to the field for his senior year to rush for 1,011 yards on 6.5 yards per carry, making him the first 1,000-yard rusher for Ole Miss since 2009. Now that Wilkins has taken his talents to Lucas Oil Stadium, the Rebels are looking for players to step up and fill the hole he left in the backfield.

A flock of players hope to do exactly that. In the latest release of Ole Miss’ running back depth chart, junior college transfer Scottie Phillips was listed at the No. 1 spot, ahead of junior Eric Swinney and true freshman Isaiah Woullard. Phillips averaged 123.6 rushing yards per game last season at Jones County, and coaches and teammates have raved about his physical attributes and quiet demeanor.

“We have talented running backs in the backfield,” Ta’amu said. “We’re looking for that firm running back that can do the job — who can block and run.”

Though Phillips seems to have locked down the starting role, Swinney and Woullard will certainly get snaps in Longo’s offense. During the 2017 season, Wilkins handled 42 percent of the team’s carries. With no proven replacement for Wilkins, duties are expected to be divided in the backfield.

Swinney had a solid season in 2017, managing to record 195 yards on 41 carries while also recovering from two seasons cut short by injury. Achieving similar or improved averages would put him in line for more touches in 2018. Woullard, on the other hand, was a 2-star recruit only months ago, but his impressive showing in camp has vaulted him up the depth chart and made it possible for him to make an immediate impact.

A key player who will be missing from the field, at least for the beginning of the season, is D’Vaughn Pennamon, a 5-foot-11, 238-pound bruiser who dislocated his knee in last year’s outing against Texas A&M. Pennamon was a change of pace from the shifty, smaller backs in the Ole Miss backfield, and the Rebels will miss his production. Senior D.K. Buford will look to step into the role of the short-yardage back now, as he is the only experienced back taller than 5-feet-9-inches and heavier than 215 pounds.

“You know, it’s four good guys that can go,” wide receiver DaMarkus Lodge siad. “I think they’re just going to elevate their game.”

Despite the absence of Wilkins and Pennamon, there is an air of optimism about the run game from the rest of the roster.

“Our running game is going to be a lot better,” Lodge said. “Even though we had a 1,000-yard back last year, I just think that the offensive line has an edge now and the running backs have motivation because of the competition.”