1. Ole Miss has 16 starters returning, not to mention being one of the handful of SEC teams with an experienced quarterback. Does that create some expectations for 2014, and was that the vibe through spring practice?
I do think that there are some cautiously optimistic vibes in the football program due to the experience this team returns. To be fair, the team did lose a lot to graduation - starting halfback Jeff Scott, wide receiver Donte Moncrief, starting linebacker Mike Marry, and right tackle Pierce Burton to name a few - and Austin Golson, the rising starter at right tackle, is leaving the program. But, all that said, the team returns so much talent that it's tough to not think good things as a fan. When you return your starting quarterback, left tackle, a top wide receiver, leading rusher and most of your starting defenders, you have good reason to get excited.
I don't think people are going to expect an SEC Championship or anything, but I do feel that people are feeling that this team could be very competitive. That vibe was definitely present in the spring, even among some of our more reserved fans, players, and coaches.
2. Ten of those returnees are on defense. The Rebs played a lot of youth on that side of the ball last year, how is that side of the ball coming together?
This defense could be the best Ole Miss defense since the 2008 defense, which led the conference in tackles for a loss and was second behind Alabama in rush defense. That defense was so talented because of how strong the defensive line was up front, and if everyone is healthy for the Rebs than this team wouldn't be that much different. CJ Johnson, Isaac Gross, and Robert Nkemdiche all missed some time last year due to injury so, presuming that they stay healthy, they all return to form a pretty formidable front. What makes this defense unique for Ole Miss fans is how good the secondary is. Ole Miss has pretty consistently fielded mediocre-to-bad secondaries, but with All-American safety Cody Prewitt leading a group of experienced, athletic defenders, there is reason to think that this year's secondary will be the exception to the rule.
3. On offense, the returning experience is all at the skill positions. Is offensive line a concern?
If there is one area of concern that almost all Ole Miss fans share, it's the offensive line. Laremy Tunsil returns at left tackle, which is great, and if Aaron Morris recovers from an ACL tear in time to get in proper shape then we'll have a solid left guard to bolster that side of the line. But, beyond that, we're working with a bunch of question marks. Making this more complicated is the departure of Austin Golson, who we had penciled in to start at right tackle. Now that he's gone, we're hoping that either someone converted from another position or a junior college transfer can start in his place - that's not good.
4. Ole Miss really liked to use Barry Brunetti in a change-up role with Bo Wallace last season. With his departure, is there another backup quarterback ready to help?
As you pointed out, Hugh Freeze does like to mix things up with his quarterbacks. I think a lot of that this season had to do with Bo Wallace's bum shoulder, but I also think that Barry was such a good runner that he was too valuable to not have out there in certain situations. Beyond Bo, Ole Miss has four scholarship quarterbacks. Devante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan are redshirt freshmen who will most likely be competing for the starting job next year. Kincade is smaller, but more athletic and has a very nice touch to his passes. Buchanan has size and confidence, as well as a big arm. I actually expect to see both of them out there at times, but I give the nod to Kincade due to his athleticism and guts.
Then there's freshman Kendrick Doss, who will most definitely be redshirted, and Jeremy Liggins. Liggins is gigantic (close to 300 pounds) and has a big arm. He also is surprisingly nimble for his size. That said, if spring ball is any indicator, he just isn't polished or poised enough to see any meaningful time as a quarterback. He could be used in option packages on 4th and short or in goal line situations, but I don't see his value beyond that. There are rumblings that he could play some defensive end this year.
5. Any other surprises or concerns coming out of spring football?
The biggest surprise is that no starters got hurt. It seems like we lose some starting player every spring to a dumb injury. Christian Morris, an offensive tackle who transferred from UCLA to be closer to his Memphis home, did hurt his achilles while lifting weights, but beyond that there weren't any big injuries outside the typical bangs and bruises. Austin Golson leaving was also a big surprise, and it really does hurt this offensive line's prospects going forward. I still am not sure what the offensive front will look like, and I don't know that the coaches are either. But Ole Miss having depth issues on the offensive line isn't particularly surprising in the grand scheme of things.