Air Raid disciple Phil Longo won't fix defense, recruiting at Ole Miss
Ole Miss has hired new coordinators on both sides of the ball, as Phil Longo is now in charge of the offense and Wesley McGriff runs the defense.
Longo takes over for Dan Werner, who had been co-offensive coordinator for the entirety of coach Hugh Freeze’s five-year tenure with the Rebels. McGriff replaces Dave Wommack, who retired after a 38-year career in coaching.
Neither Werner nor Wommack is leaving Oxford — voluntarily or otherwise — with a good taste in his mouth. Mississippi finished the 2016 campaign at 5-7 and won’t go bowling over the holidays, which is a shock for a team that was expected to compete in the West. All those extra practices would have come in handy.
Longo, a disciple of the popular Air Raid system, has a lot in common with Freeze when it comes to general offensive philosophy.
The Air Raid scheme really became a phenomenon when Art Briles miraculously transformed Baylor from a Big 12 doormat into a genuine title contender. The Bears operated at warp speed and took shots downfield at every opportunity.
This is a serious jump in competition for Longo, who has never had a job at the FBS level — let alone in the mighty SEC. Most recently the OC at Sam Houston State, his résumé features stops at a bunch of small schools: William Paterson, LaSalle, Minnesota-Duluth, Southern Illinois, Youngstown State and Slippery Rock.
For the most part, Freeze has employed a similar attack: all shotgun, lots of RPOs, run as many plays as possible.
Despite a record under .500, the Rebs finished fourth in the conference in both total offense and scoring offense. They were unbalanced, though. While the passing game was No. 1 in the league, the running game was 12th.
Similarly, Sam Houston State was No. 2 at the FCS ranks through the air in 2016. The ground assault was another story and could do no better than 37th. As a result, there’s little reason to think that Ole Miss will look discernably different with Longo on a headset — Freeze (above) calls a lot of the plays himself — instead of Werner.
According to Hugh Kellenberger of the Clarion-Ledger, Longo failed in his first attempt to impress Rebels fans.
“Word first got out about Longo last week and on the day Sam Houston State was set to play in the FCS national quarterfinals on ESPN,” Kellenberger wrote Thursday. “Ole Miss fans tuned in, expecting to see the future of the Rebel offense. If that was it, oh no.
“James Madison beat Sam Houston State 65-7, and Longo’s offense looked pitiful. The quarterback (who was injured) could not complete any passes, the receivers were bumped off routes routinely and there was certainly no running game to speak of.”
As Mississippi continues its transition from Chad Kelly to Shea Patterson, taking at least some of the pressure off the quarterback position would be a wise decision. Gifted or not, Patterson was only a true freshman this season.
Even with tight end Evan Engram out of eligibility and wide receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow off to the NFL a year early, Patterson will have plenty of pass-catching weapons — many with built-in size advantages — at his disposal as a sophomore. Expect lots of fireworks with Longo’s emphasis on vertical routes.
But it’s fair to wonder if that’s a sustainable brand of football with the current state of this program defensively.
When the Rebs’ up-tempo offense is hitting on all cylinders, it’s a beautiful thing to watch. If it’s not, however, their own defense is back on the field in a hurry. Recovery from series to series is a luxury they don’t have.
Correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation, but it’s worth noting that Ole Miss was 12th in total defense — stopping the run in particular was a major problem — and dead last in scoring defense over the course of the regular season. Especially late in games, Rebels defenders were out of gas and didn’t have any fight left.
Perhaps even more concerning, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of help on the horizon in Freeze’s next recruiting class.
According to the composite rankings at 247Sports, Mississippi is on pace to sign just the No. 46 class in the country based on its current commitments. That’s 13th out of 14 SEC institutions, ahead of only Vanderbilt.
It remains to be seen if Longo can be a difference maker on the recruiting trail — needless to say, he’ll be dealing with a different breed of athlete than he was at, say, Sam Houston State. Even if he turns out to be the best play caller in the nation, it won’t matter much if he ends up being a dud in Mom and Dad’s living room.
There are seven four- and five-star recruits in the Magnolia State this cycle. Right now, only one is pledged to the Rebs.
“It’s doubtful his reputation or name (or lack thereof) is going to get Ole Miss anywhere with five-star running back Cam Akers of Clinton,” Kellenberger wrote.
“You should not hire a coordinator because of one recruit, no matter who it is, but broadly speaking … if a guy from New Jersey can go from recruiting for Sam Houston State, Slippery Rock and Youngstown State, among others, to beating out Alabama, LSU and Mississippi State for recruits, then more power to him. He’s going to get a head coaching job one day, if that’s the case — and a good one.”
It’s unfair to suggest that Longo is a bad hire. He may turn out to be a terrific OC. Still, at first glance, it feels like a status-quo move.