OXFORD – Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze will insert a potential top-five draft pick into his offensive line on Saturday.
It’s unfair to expect Laremy Tunsil’s presence alone to fix a run game that has struggled against quality defenses, especially in short-yardage situations.
According to the projected lineup Freeze read off at his Monday press conference, freshman guard Javon Patterson will be the only player to start this week against Texas A&M in the same position he started last week, in the Rebels’ 37-24 loss at Memphis.
Freeze has, at times, faced criticism for commitment to the run when his offense often moves fluidly with an accurate quarterback and wide receiver depth.
The run-pass ratio wasn’t balanced at Memphis, with rush attempts on only 33 percent of 72 plays.
But Freeze ran the ball 100 percent of the time on five third- or fourth-down plays when 1 yard or less was needed to move the chains, and only one was successful.
Senior offensive lineman Justin Bell – a career guard who will make his first start at center this week – says predictability is part of the problem. Teams know the run is coming in short-yardage situations.
“I feel like that’s what the other teams expect. They’re padding the line against us as you saw in the game,” he said.
Players say they should be able to execute the plays in spite of a numbers disadvantage.
Execution was a problem on fourth-and-1 from the Memphis 10 when Tigers nickel back Jackson Dillon shed a block by Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram and dropped Jordan Wilkins for a 6-yard loss.
“Honestly, I just feel like we’re not locked in on dominating the man that’s in front of us. We don’t have that dog mentality that we’re going to dominate anything and anyone that gets in the way,” Engram said. “We need to have that pride and confidence that we’re going to get the first down, that we’re going to dig in and do whatever needs to be done to get 1 yard or 3 yards.”
Memphis held the Rebels to a season-low 40 rushing yards.
Against its weakest opponents, Ole Miss has been strong on the ground. The Rebels surpassed 200 yards against Fresno State and New Mexico State and had more than 300 yards against Tennessee-Martin, but hasn’t sniffed those kind of numbers the rest of the season.
Ole Miss rushed for 151 yards against Vanderbilt but was held to less than 100 against Alabama and Florida.
Freeze doesn’t get caught up in the stats and says some rushing numbers are hidden in the passing numbers based on quarterback reads and decisions at the line of scrimmage.
“One thing that gets lost is we called 15 run plays that we had completed passes on where if you hand those off you’re going to get some positive yards,” he said. “There are some I know we would have. The read was to throw.”
Freeze said he will continue to evaluate personnel and schemes.
“When you need to rush the ball on third-and-1, you have to be better than we are.”