Better or worse? Why Ole Miss' offense won't be quite as good in 2022
Ole Miss had one of the best offenses in the country in 2021.
It will have one of the better offenses in the country in 2022.
It has quite a challenge to improve on offense, but it has the potential to be really good again.
The Rebels were 6th in the country with an average of 492.5 yards per game, but they lost 7 starters, most notably QB Matt Corral.
The bar was set high on offense as Ole Miss set a school record with 10 regular-season wins.
Meeting that standard won’t be easy.
Head coach Lane Kiffin will have to operate without several key players from last season. But he did put together one of the top recruiting classes through the transfer portal to add several key players to the mix.
He won’t have Corral, running backs Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner or wide receivers Dontario Drummond and Braylon Sanders.
He also won’t have starting offensive linemen Ben Brown and Orlando Umana, but he will have 3 returning starters on the offensive line.
Kiffin has a lot to work with, but the question is whether the talent, experience and familiarity with the program and one another are sufficient to avoid a drop-off from 2021.
Ole Miss has new offensive coordinators and will have a new starting quarterback. There will be an initial transition and ongoing growing pains. The offense will be appreciably better later in the season than it is in the beginning.
Of course the schedule will be more challenging later in the season than it is earlier in the season as the 4-game pre-conference schedule is followed by the 8-game SEC gauntlet.
That gives the Rebels 4 games to try and complete the transition and work through the growing pains before the conference opener against Kentucky on Oct. 1.
The new starting quarterback will be able to navigate the September schedule against Troy, Central Arkansas, Georgia Tech and Tulsa.
Then it gets more challenging.
The question is whether the 2022 offense will ever catch up to the 2021 offense that finished 4th in the SEC in scoring at 33.7 points per game.
Passing offense: Worse
Corral will be especially difficult to replace. He was one of the most productive quarterbacks in the country last season and was unusually efficient in terms of ball security, throwing just 5 interceptions.
The Rebels would be better off if they had a quarterback with Corral’s experience and familiarity with the offense.
They don’t have that, but they do have viable options.
Kiffin hasn’t yet selected a starter. It will be either Luke Altmyer, who backed up Corral and saw limited action last season, or USC transfer Jaxson Dart.
Altmyer has a head-start on Dart in running game Kiffin’s offense, which is now in the hands of co-offensive coordinators Charlie Weis Jr. and John David Baker after last season’s coordinator, Jeff Lebby, left for Oklahoma.
But Dart gained more experience with the Trojans last season than Altmyer had with the Rebels. Dart started 3 games and passed for 1,353 yards and 9 touchdowns.
Either one will have a significant challenge to try and match or surpass Corral’s lofty numbers – 3,349 passing yards and 20 touchdown passes.
It’s unlikely either Altmyer or Dart will be able to connect with a single receiver as effectively as Corral hooked up with Dontario Drummond, who finished 6th in the SEC in receptions (76), 7th in receiving yards (1,028) and tied for 8th in touchdown catches (8).
But even though the passing game might be more democratic, it can also be very effective again.
Ole Miss has several receivers – most notably returning starter Jonathan Mingo, Louisville transfer Jordan Watkins (35-529-4), Missouri transfer Jalen Knox, Mississippi State transfer Malik Heath and other returnees such as Bralon Brown, Brandon Buckhaulter, Dannis Jackson and Jadon Jackson – capable of keeping the passing game humming.
Michael Trigg, a teammate of Dart’s at USC last season, and returnee Casey Kelly, should also boost the passing game from the tight end position.
The passing game has the elements necessary to be highly productive once again, but lacks the experience and continuity necessary to match last season’s performance.
It will be good, but not as good.
Running game: Worse
The experience on the offensive line will pave the way for an effective running game.
Nick Broeker, Jeremy James, Caleb Warren and Western Kentucky transfer Mason Brooks will be the keys to the line, which will set the tone for the offense.
The Rebels won’t have a one-two punch as effective as Ealy and Conner, who combined for 1,415 yards last season.
But TCU transfer Zach Evans will easily exceed Ealy’s team-leading 768 yards last season as Ole Miss tries to exceed its rushing productivity from a year ago, including its 4.81 average per rush, which was 10th in the SEC.
But the Rebels won’t be able to replace the 614 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns that Corral kicked in and the run game will be less productive overall.
Kicking game: Better
The departures of Ealy and Drummond create openings in the return game, which was unspectacular last season. Drummond was the primary punt returner, gaining 56 yards on 5 returns, while the team gained 93 yards on 8 returns.
Ealy averaged 23.5 yards on 11 kickoff returns as the team averaged 21.2 yards on 18 returns.
New coordinator Marty Biagi, who came over from Purdue, might not have returners more talented than Ealy or Drummond, but he has an opportunity to increase the productivity of the return game overall.
Biagi will have a dependable kicker in Caden Costa, who made 14-of-17 field goals last season, as well as backup Cale Nation, who made 1-of-3.
The kicking game will contribute more to the offense in 2022.
The Rebels just have too many really good players to replace.
They do have a lot to work with and will be really good again.
The primary feature of the 2021 Ole Miss offense was its balance. The Rebels were No. 3 in the SEC in both rushing offense and passing offense.
The offense will be good and balanced again, but it will fall short of its 2021 bottom line (33.7 points per game).