5 ways Ole Miss will be better in 2020 than 2019
A 2020 season that is sure to look unlike any other is just around the corner. Ole Miss and first-year head coach Lane Kiffin are trudging through the 4th week of fall camp. As the Rebels’ opener with Florida nears, where will they be improved from Matt Luke’s final year in 2019?
Let’s take a look.
1. Ole Miss will be better in the passing game
Whether it is Matt Corral — who appears to be pulling ahead in this competition — or John Rhys Plumlee, the Rebels are virtually guaranteed to be improved in the passing game. Last year was an abject disaster from a schematic standpoint as Rich Rodriguez and Matt Luke stumbled into a puzzling yet ultimately predictable rotation between 2 quarterbacks in a run-heavy system with its only viable threat being to force-feed Elijah Moore in the slot. Moore totaled 67 catches.
The next closest receiver was Dontario Drummond at 13. Ole Miss accumulated just 2,328 yards as a team through the air.
Neither quarterback had a 60% completion percentage and they combined for 10 touchdown passes. Both Plumlee and Corral were young quarterbacks whose development was undercut by the scheme. Lane Kiffin and Jeff Lebby bring with them a more diverse and balanced offense.
Even with a loaded backfield led by Jerrion Ealy, Ole Miss is going to be better in the passing game simply because of how low the bar was set in 2019.
2. More offensive line depth
Plenty went wrong during a 4-8 season, but Ole Miss skated by with razor-thin depth on the offensive line thanks to a nearly spotless bill of health. The first game was a disastrous loss to Memphis that exposed a line that was assumed to be the weak point. But the Rebels got better throughout the year with the insertion of now sophomore Nick Broeker at left tackle and consistent play among veterans on the other side. Ole Miss should have more depth than the 6 men it played a year ago, even with losing Alex Givens to graduation and starting center Eli Johnson to transfer.
Ben Brown has made a seamless transition to center, Broeker is a year older and more experienced and veteran Royce Newman offers versatility at guard or tackle. If the Rebels can solidify the interior around Brown with Jalen Cunningham, Carter Colquitt, Jeremy James and Bryce Ramsey, it should be a serviceable group with a chance to formulate depth. The staff likes the development of Caleb Warren and Reece McIntyre, and if the Rebels can get most of this group game ready, it should be improved from a depth standpoint.
3. Linebacking play
The obvious headline here is MoMo Sanogo returning healthy after missing essentially 11 games a season ago with a leg injury. His return can’t be overstated. Ole Miss boasted one of the worst defenses in the FBS from 2016-18 is now the linebacker unit is its greatest position of strength. Leading tackler Lakia Henry returns as does 2nd-leading tackler Jacquez Jones. The Rebels have a legitimate chance to feature one of the better linebacking groups in the SEC. If Sanogo can return anywhere close to his 2018 form that saw him rank 3rd in the SEC in tackles, this will be the strength of a defense that will hopefully build on its marginal improvement in 2019.
The signs of this brewed down the stretch even as Ole Miss had the worst pass defense in the SEC. But the Rebels should be improved on the back end this fall. The secondary allowed 278 yards per game a season ago, 20 touchdowns and picked off 10 passes. A lot of young players like A.J. Finley, Jalen Jordan and Jakorey Hawkins were forced to play a lot of snaps due to injury or poor play from veterans.
The Rebels return a senior in newly-minted Chucky Mullins award winner Jaylon Jones. Safety Jon Haynes is healthy after battling through nagging injuries last year, and if Ole Miss gets a favorable ruling on Georgia transfer safety Otis Reese — who would likely start if the season began today — and Canadien defensive back Deane Leonard, this should be a much-improved group. Freshman 2-way player Marc Britt has turned heads on defense and Keidron Smith now has 2 years of experience.
The secondary might be the most crucial element to success in 2020. It has the personnel to take a leap from last year’s struggles.
5. Calculated risks
Perhaps an off-the-radar choice, but Ole Miss will undoubtedly take more risks than it did a season ago. Matt Luke was risk-averse. Remember, he once kicked on 4th-and-short to get to overtime against Vanderbilt in 2018 with nothing to lose and no postseason. He also planned to kick the extra point to force overtime versus Mississippi State last November even before Moore’s celebration fiasco.
Kiffin arrives with an analytics-based approach. He even quipped “get ready to rip me,” in his opening press conference when asked about his decision making and how he factors in analytics. He obviously has job security and his first season comes in a bizarre set of circumstances in which expectations are nearly impossible to quantify. Look for Ole Miss to be more prone to taking risks this year and will likely be a better football team because of it.