A different vibe has officially taken root in Oxford, Miss. After Archie and Eli Manning came through, Ole Miss started to become one of the floor mat teams in the Southeastern Conference.
It would make strides toward the top, but only to fall down again due to a lack of consistency.
A simple coaching change in 2012 made a lot of difference for the Rebels, as returning Hugh Freeze to “The Grove” has ignited a new style of play and a fresh confidence for Mississippi.
To keep itself relevant, Freeze and his group did something that very few schools have done—defeat a two-time defending SEC championship in back-to-back seasons (2014-15). Despite Alabama’s advantage in the series (48-11-2), the Magnolia state holds the current bragging rights.
The match-up returns to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium this week and after suffering a loss to Florida State in week one, the Rebels would love to continue holding the edge over Alabama.
Losing Laquon Treadwell, Cody Core, Laremy Tunsil, Robert Nkemdiche and Trae Elston to the National Football League was tough, yet Ole Miss returned quite a lot of talent to the table.
Listed below are five players that Freeze and the Rebels will be counting on this week.
Ole Miss impact players to face Alabama
5. Tony Bridges, Cornerback, Senior
With Kendarius Webster (knee) out for the season and Tony Conner (knee) getting back to 100 percent, Bridges is now “the man” of Ole Miss’ secondary. He had a solid junior year, totaling 36 tackles, two tackles for loss, nine pass breakups, three interceptions and a touchdown in 2015.
Bridges got picked on numerous times by Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois in Mississippi’s 45-34 loss in week one to the Seminoles. He’s a hard-nosed player at 6-feet and 185 pounds, but the driving point for him will be to re-route and frustrate Alabama’s wide receivers.
4. Rod Taylor, Offensive lineman, Junior
Taylor has played in 24 games, scratching four starts at right guard. The 6-foot-3, 329-pound junior was moved to left tackle in the offseason and is projected to start this week. He was one of the anchors on Ole Miss’ front line in 2015, blocking for 40.6 points, 517.7 yards and a 10-win season.
Taylor, a native of Jackson, Miss., has the daunting task of protecting Chad Kelly against Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson. He also must establish the run game on the left side for Akeem Judd (senior), Eugene Brazley (junior) and Kelly, when he chooses to run.
3. Evan Engram, Tight end, Senior
He’s one of the more complete receiving targets in the SEC.
Engram stands as Ole Miss’ all-time leader in receptions (108) and receiving yards (1,558) for a tight end, while being tied for fifth in touchdowns with eight. He beats defenders in a variety of ways, whether it’s coming off the line and getting open or lining up outside as a vertical threat.
The 6-foot-3, 235-pound target returned for his senior year, in hopes to be more involved in the offense. Engram leads the Rebels in receiving with 11 catches for 164 yards and a touchdown.
Freeze will look to spray the ball to Quincy Adeboyejo, Markell Pack, Damore’ea Stringfellow and a host of other wide outs, but the vertical passing game starts with Engram.
2. Marquis Haynes, Defensive end, Senior
Affecting Jalen Hurts is one of multiple ways for Ole Miss to defeat Alabama.
Haynes is one of the better pass rushers in this conference, accounting for 18.5 career sacks, 26.5 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback pressures. He led the team in sacks and tackles for loss during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, with 10 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss coming in 13 games last year.
Haynes runs a defensive front with Issac Gross, Breeland Speaks, Fadol Brown, D.J. Jones and DeMarquis Gates. If this group can keep the Crimson Tide from establishing a consistent run game and disrupt the timing of Hurts in the pocket, Ole Miss will do some serious damage.
1. Chad Kelly, Quarterback, Senior
As a first year quarterback in the SEC, Kelly guided the Rebels to wins over Alabama (road), Texas A&M, Auburn (road), LSU, Mississippi State (road) and Oklahoma State (Sugar Bowl) in 2015.
He completed 298 of 458 passes for 4,042 yards and 31 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. Kelly’s deceptive athleticism paid off as a runner, collecting 500 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns.
His performance against Alabama was one for the ages, as he completed 18 of 33 pass attempts for 341 yards and four touchdowns in a 43-37 win last season at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Kelly’s arm talent and ability to control a run/pass option offense makes it easier for Mississippi to navigate, despite not having a true running game. He enters Saturday’s game with the third-highest passer efficiency rating (155.7), falling behind Hurts (157.9) and Georgia’s Jacob Eason (161.7).
Kelly has 532 passing yards and seven touchdowns to three interceptions.