No. 17 Mississippi encouraged by improved running game

Published 9:30 am Tuesday, September 8, 2015

OXFORD – It’s hard to get too excited about any statistics from No. 17 Mississippi’s lopsided victory over an obviously inferior opponent on Saturday.

But one number did catch the attention of coach Hugh Freeze: The Rebels averaged nearly 10 yards per rushing attempt and had five players run for at least 40 yards in the 76-3 victory over the Skyhawks.

That’s important because Ole Miss was among the worst teams in the SEC last season running the football. With experienced offensive linemen and running backs return, the Rebels had hoped for vast improvement in that area.

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The progress after one game was promising.

But the opponents will become tougher in a hurry, starting with a home game against Fresno State on Saturday.

“Like I’ve said throughout the summer, I’ve been cautiously optimistic that we’ve done some things that will help us improve,” Freeze said. “I just hope we have a healthy offensive line. We’re yet to get totally there.”

Health is one issue for the offensive line – potential starting guard Rod Taylor missed Saturday’s game with a shoulder injury.

NCAA eligibility is another.

Starting left tackle Laremy Tunsil was held out of the UT Martin game for what the school called “precautionary” reasons while the program looks into potential NCAA violations. Freeze didn’t know on Monday if Tunsil will play against Fresno State and said that any decisions regarding his status would be made by administration.

The school said during the summer that it was working with the NCAA after Tunsil’s stepfather made allegations that the offensive lineman had improper contact with agents and received illegal benefits.

“That can be quite frustrating and make you anxious at times, but I am confident that our people and whatever process is going on that they’re on top of it,” Freeze said.

Ole Miss shifted the offensive line because of Tunsil’s absence, moving Fahn Cooper to left tackle and inserting Sean Rawlings at right tackle. It worked just fine against the overmatched Skyhawks.

The Rebels gained 338 yards on the ground on Saturday. Eugene Brazley led the way with 88 yards and one touchdown on six carries while starter Jaylen Walton ran for two touchdowns – including a 60-yarder on his first carry of the game.

Jordan Wilkins added 41 yards on six carries.

“We’ve got to keep improving,” Wilkins said. “But it was good to get out there and see five different running backs run the ball well and even the second string offensive line was opening up holes.”

An improved running game would almost certainly take some pressure off of new starting quarterback Chad Kelly. The junior transfer had a good first game, completing 9 of 15 passes for 211 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

“Anytime you can run the ball at will, it gives you a lot of options to open up the playbook and keep the defense on their heels,” Kelly said. “That’s when you can throw it around a little bit.”

by DAVID BRANDT, AP Sports Writer