The 2023 season is just days away from finally kicking off, and for the Ole Miss Rebels, it is a chance to right the wrongs of last season’s late miscues and improve on an eight-win season. Head coach Lane Kiffin, after what can only be summarized as a tumultuous end to the 2022 season after flirting with the Auburn head coaching job, has stated that he hopes to use the struggles of last season to be prepared to finish strong in 2023. However, with a schedule that many have called the toughest in the nation with a top Group-of-Five team in Tulane and the last 3 SEC Champions in Alabama, LSU, and Georgia, Kiffin and the Rebels will need to find what made them so successful in their 7-0 start last season and maintain it to have a chance to make noise in the SEC in 2023.
With all of that said, here is a look just days away from kickoff at the offense, defense, and special teams of the Rebels for 2023.
If you are a lover of high-powered offenses, this is one that will have you licking your lips. The Rebels return much of their offensive production along with key pieces added in the portal.
While Kiffin has not (and probably will not until Saturday on the jumbotron) announced a starter at quarterback, all signs point to junior incumbent starter Jaxson Dart taking the reins of the Rebel offense after an offseason that has led to according to staff a ton of growth and by Dart’s own admission, a new philosophy to his game.
With the transfer of Spencer Sanders, Ole Miss and Kiffin made it clear to Dart that QB1 would not be given after an up-and-down season, but rather, it would have to be earned on the field. Dart showed that promise on the field last season in his inaugural season as a Rebel with nearly 3,000 yards passing, 20 touchdowns, and a 62 percent completion percentage. However, with eleven turnovers and an offense that sputtered in big moments last season in losses to LSU, Alabama, and Mississippi State, Dart will have to take that step forward to be able to score on those few drives that kept Ole Miss from repeating double-digit wins in the regular season in back-to-back years.
As for running back, we all know the name, and the rest of the SEC does as well. Quinshon Judkins returns as CFB’s seventh-leading rusher in 2022 to go along with what was one of the greatest debut seasons for a runner in the SEC’s history. However, while Judkins was fantastic last season, he was also aided by the depth that Zach Evans provided last season at 6.5 yards per carry. While Evans is gone to the Los Angeles Rams, the Rebels once again have a talented, yet unproven, backfield with Ulyssus Bentley IV returning from an injury-riddled season that provided flashes of what he can add when healthy. Another name to watch for? Kedrick Reescano, a freshman addition for the Rebels, is a powerful runner in the same vein of Judkins’ style who has the potential to be a valuable asset in the running game early on in 2023.
As for receiver, it is a much bigger unknown for the Rebels and, in my opinion, will define the heights this offense can reach. We know that a second-year in the offense for Dart should lead to that next step being taken. We know that the running back room has an abundance of talent and a potential Doak Walker candidate. We know that the offensive line, which will be discussed shortly, should be great. What we don’t know, however, is what this receiver room will look like in terms of the depth chart. Tre Harris and Zahkari Franklin are the two biggest names brought in from the transfer portal with the former being an All-Conference USA selection with ten scoring grabs and the latter being an honorable mention All-American one year ago with over 1,100 yards and 15 touchdowns.
As for returners and recruits, Jordan Watkins is a potential name to take a step after showing flashes in a season where he started ten games and had 40 receptions. My name to watch out of the receiver room? Ayden Williams. Listed at 6’3, 190 lbs., the freshman out of Ridgeland was the number one receiver in the Magnolia State last season and from all accounts has shown why in practice. A big body with excellent athleticism allows Williams to have one of the largest catch radiuses possible at the reciever position. If he gets his chance to show out early on, he could end up being the Rebels’ top target by year’s end.
Along with these receivers, new addition Caden Prieskorn and Michael Trigg will be looked at to help bring some recieving threat to a tight end room that has lacked it since Kenny Yeboah’s stellar 2020 season.
Finally, we can not forget the big men up front on the offensive line who may actually be the best returning unit for Ole Miss this season. Besides the departure of top guard Nick Broeker, this offensive line returns all starters from a year ago and has returning contributor Eli Acker to slide into that missing spot. For a line that helped anchor the third-best rushing attack in the nation in 2022, you can not ask for a more exciting return. While the unit could be looked at to improve on the passing side after giving up 14 sacks, that was still good for 20th best in the country. If this unit improves on that number while continuing their excellence in the running game, this could be a top-5 offensive line in the nation.
As has been the question for so many years with the Rebels, the defense will need to take a step forward in 2023 to reach new heights. After a late improvement in 2021 behind D.J. Durkin, the defense struggled late in 2022 under Chris Partridge, which led to the hiring of Pete Golding to head the Landshark defense in 2023. While Golding has his flaws and critics, there is no denying that the hire was a major upgrade for the Rebels both recruiting and schematically.
With a mix of 3-4 and 4-2-5 schemes, one can expect the Rebels to show less three-man fronts than one year ago, which was one of the largest critiques from the Ole Miss faithful with a defense that struggled to stop the run.
Up front, the Rebels return most of their production from a year ago in Cedric Johnson and Jared Ivey, who is a third-team All-SEC selection by coaches. In the middle, J.J. Pegues shows flashes of having all the talent in the world in terms of athleticism and strength, and one would hope having another inside rusher would allow Pegues to show more in 2023. As for who may be that fourth rusher? Stephon Wynn would be a name to watch for that spot after transferring late from Nebraska.
In the second level, linebacker will be a spot that will see plenty of new faces step in to help improve that room. Monty Montgomery is a name to watch after having 15 sacks in four years at Louisville. Ashanti Cistrunk returns to bring some experience to the room. Another potential name to watch is Suntarine Perkins, who was the top recruit in Mississippi during the 2022 cycle. Perkins is a next-level athlete with the potential to be an All-SEC freshman team candidate if he finds his way quickly up the depth chart. Khari Coleman showed flashes in 2022 before injury issues plagued the Rebel defender. Ladarius Tennison started eight games in the secondary, but he has the versatility to hover around the defensive depth chart.
Finally, the secondary has been a question mark for Ole Miss, but it too returns production from last year and new faces from the transfer portal. One of the top returning names is Deantre Prince, who has been with the Rebels since his freshman year outside a one-year stint at Northeast Mississippi. He was one of the leaders of the improved 2021 unit, but like most of the group, struggled down the stretch at times last year. However, there is no denying the talent he has at his A-game. Isheem Young is another name that returns from last season. Originally from Iowa State, he was a part of a vaunted safety group that mixed Young, A.J. Finley, and Tennison. With Finley gone to the NFL, Young is a name to look for in terms of a big impact as a great defender up too in the run game.
As for new names, DeShawn Gaddie is a name that has tons of fans buzzing. Transferring in from North Texas, he is slated to start the year as a backup. However, he joins as a top defensive back in the Conference USA last season and could wind up moving his way into the starters by year’s end.
After a suspension was placed on Caden Costa late in the 2021 season, it left the Rebels without a kicker heading into last season. Credit Jonathon Cruz for stepping in and providing stability to a position that had none heading into 2022. Now that Cruz has graduated, Costa returns to hopefully build off what was a stellar freshman season in 2021 in which he made 14 out of 17 attempts as well as won SEC Freshman of the Week twice.
Meanwhile, punter was another area that was unsure heading into last season after Mac Brown left behind a top-tier career with graduation. However, Fraser Masin stepped in last year, performed nicely with an average punt of 42.1 yards, and returns in 2023 to provide stability and hopefully improve on last season’s success.