“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.”
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.”
Ole Miss at a glance
2015 record: 10-3
Coach: Hugh Freeze (fifth year)
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
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
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
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