Ole Miss

Can Chad Kelly keep Ole Miss on top of SEC?

Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly passes during practice in Oxford, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. If the Rebels want to once again be in the conversation as a SEC title contender, Kelly will need to put together another impressive campaign.
Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly passes during practice in Oxford, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. If the Rebels want to once again be in the conversation as a SEC title contender, Kelly will need to put together another impressive campaign. AP

“The Big Three” are no longer at Ole Miss. Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil and Robert Nkemdiche, the three cornerstone players who Ole Miss built its turnaround on, have all graduated to the NFL.

One would think that signals a step back for Ole Miss in 2016, right?

Wrong, if you believe Rebel faithful, who have tied this year’s success largely to the arm of Chad Kelly.

The former Clemson and East Mississippi quarterback exploded onto the scene a year ago. Kelly led the Southeastern Conference in passing yards (4,042), total yards (4, 542) and passing touchdowns (31). He also completed 65.1 percent of his passes to earn a quarterback rating of 155.9.

“He’s hungry,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze told reporters during Ole Miss’ media day. “He’s determined.”

Kelly certainly doesn’t lack confidence. During SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama, Kelly said he wanted to be the best quarterback in the nation.

“You have to feel that way,” Kelly said. “In order to have confidence in yourself and team, you have to think you’re the best. That’s what I want our whole team — from offensive linemen to running backs — we have to think we’re the best players and the best team out there.

“I want to be remembered as the greatest quarterback that ever played.”

If the Rebels are going to be successful once again, it stands to reason that other players will need to step up and complement Kelly.

While Treadwell and Cody Core are both in the NFL now, Kelly is lucky to have a number of his targets back, including tight end Evan Engram and receivers Quincy Adeboyejo, Damore’ea Stringfellow and Markell Pack. Ole Miss also added plenty of depth with its latest signing class with the additions of standout receivers A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and tight end Octavious Cooley.

“I feel really good about the offense,” offensive coordinator Dan Werner told reporters after practice. “With the success we had last year and all those guys leaving, the younger guys took it upon themselves to step up and make this thing right. So far, they’ve worked really hard in the offseason. They’re in great shape and they’re locked in mentally.”

The Rebels don’t exactly expect to replace left tackle Laremy Tunsil right out of the gate. Long-term, however, Ole Miss loves what it has in freshman Greg Little.

“We do think he’s a really good future left tackle,” Freeze said. “When that takes place is hard to say. But he wants to do it and he learns and he studies, so I think the learning curve, he’ll handle that well.”

Little has been seeing time at left tackle with Alex Givens and Rod Taylor. The Rebels will likely continue to rotate a number of guys through various roles leading up to the Sept. 5 opener against Florida State in Orlando, Florida, in an effort to find the right fit.

“It’s coming together,” Werner said. “We’re moving guys around a little bit just to see who’s going to fit where. We’ve got to come up with about eight to 10 guys that can go through a game. Right now guys are really battling.”

NCAA distraction

Freeze was asked during preseason camp if it’s been difficult to keep his players focused because of the ongoing NCAA investigation.

“It’s a lot easier than you guys really believe, because they’re kids,” he said. “They understand that they have zero control and zero to do with a lot of the things that are going on.”

Patrick Ochs: 228-896-2321, @PatrickOchs

Ole Miss at a glance

2015 record: 10-3

Coach: Hugh Freeze (fifth year)

Conference: SEC

Key returnees: QB Chad Kelly, DB Tony Brown, LB DeMarquis Gates, DE Fadol Brown, WR Quincy Adeboyejo, DE Marquis Haynes, DT Breeland Speaks, DB Tony Conner, OL Javon Patterson

Key losses: DT Robert Nkemdiche, WR Laquon Treadwell, LT Laremy Tunsil, WR Cody Core, RB Jaylen Walton, S Trae Elston, DB Mike Hilton, DE C.J. Johnson

Postseason: Beat Oklahoma State 48-20 in Sugar Bowl

PROJECTED STARTERS

OFFENSE

QB Chad Kelly

RB Akeem Judd

TE Evan Engram

WR Quincy Adeboyejo

WR Damore’ea Stringfellow

WR Van Jefferson

LT Rod Taylor

LG Javon Patterson

C Robert Conyers

RG Jordan Sims

RT Sean Rawlings

K Gary Wunderlich

DEFENSE

DE Marquis Haynes

DT Breeland Speaks

NT D.J. Jones

DE John Youngblood

OLB Rommel Mageo

MLB Marquis Gates

NICK Tony Conner

CB Kendarius Webster

CB Tony Bridges

ROV Myles Hartsfield

FS Zedrick Woods

P Will Gleeson

SCHEDULE

Sept. 5 Florida State, at Orlando, Fla.

Sept. 10 WOFFORD

Sept. 17 ALABAMA

Sept. 24 GEORGIA

Oct. 1 MEMPHIS

Oct. 15 At Arkansas

Oct. 22 At LSU

Oct. 29 AUBURN

Nov. 5 GEORGIA SOUTHERN

Nov. 12 At Texas A&M

Nov. 19 At Vanderbilt

Nov. 26 MISSISSIPPI STATE

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