Better or worse? Well, we know the Ole Miss offense will be different, explosive under Lane Kiffin
Editor’s note: This is the 6th in a series previewing every SEC West team’s offense. Next: Texas A&M.
In an offseason filled with uncertainty and no spring practice to alleviate some of that ambiguity, the only thing certain about the Ole Miss offense is that it will look dramatically different in 2020.
The Rebels were a puzzling unit under former offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez a season ago. They were dynamic rushing the football but were simultaneously one of the worst passing offenses in the conference. Ole Miss averaged 251 yards per game on the ground, good for 3rd in the SEC and highlighted by a 402-yard performance against LSU in the penultimate game of the season. Rodriguez’s ground game took flight when true freshman signal-caller John Rhys Plumlee took over for an injured Matt Corral 3 games into the season. The fleet-footed Plumlee better fit the mold of what Rodriguez asks of the quarterback in his spread-rushing system. He rushed for 1,023 yards and averaged over 6 yards per rush in the nine games he started.
But as efficient as Ole Miss was rushing the football, the offense was 1-dimensional and often predictable. The Rebels ranked 11th in the SEC in passing, averaged just 194 yards per game and ranked 96th nationally with a 36.8 3rd-down conversion rate.
The inability to consistently move the football, coupled with mismanagement of the quarterback situation cost Ole Miss a handful of winnable games, which eventually led to the demise of former head coach Matt Luke. With Lane Kiffin now at the helm, he and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby will co-construct an offense that will undoubtedly look much different than last year. But it will be an uphill battle with no spring to implement the system and uncertainty at quarterback.
Key losses: RT Alex Givens, RB Scottie Phillips
Key returners: QB John Rhys Plumlee, QB Matt Corral, WR Elijah Moore, WR Braylon Sanders, RB Jerrion Ealy, RB Snoop Conner
Potential breakout players: RB Jerrion Ealy, WR Jonathan Mingo, WR Dontario Drummond, TE Kenny Yeboah
The selling point to the fan base heading into 2020 is the young core of skill players. More than 85% of the team’s total offense came via freshmen in 2019. The new staff’s biggest puzzle to solve is the quarterback competition between Matt Carral and John Rhys Plumlee. The Rebels lack depth on the offensive line, but the team has the skill position personnel to be one of the better offenses in the SEC.
Passing offense: Better
Conventional wisdom would lead one to believe the passing offense will be better by default, simply because it was so incompetent last season. Plumlee completed just 52 percent of his passes (79-150) and Corral was a bit better at 59 percent (105-178), but they combined for just 2,272 yards for the year. That snapped a streak of 7 consecutive years in which the Rebels threw for at least 3,200 yards.
Outside of Elijah Moore — who hauled in 62 passes for 850 yards and 6 touchdowns — no other receiver caught 15 passes and only 2 others, Drummond and seldom-used Jadon Jackson, caught touchdown passes. The team’s second leading pass catcher was Ealy and the next closest receiver in yards to Moore was Sanders at 192.
Kiffin and Lebby inherit some interesting pieces at wide receiver. Moore might be the most dangerous slot receiver in the conference. Mingo is a rising sophomore who showed promise in short spurts last year and Sanders is a 3-year contributor who is a serviceable deep threat when healthy. There are also younger pieces like Demarcus Gregory and Miles Battle, who have yet to develop into SEC-caliber receivers, also didn’t stand much of a chance to do so because of the dysfunction of the scheme. Yeboah is a grad transfer tight end who will likely start with the departures of Octavious Cooley and Jason Pellerin and has a chance to be productive given Kiffin’s propensity to use the tight end. The reigning Mackey Award winner, Harrison Bryant, played for Kiffin at FAU. O.J. Howard became a star at Alabama under Kiffin.
Who gets the nod at quarterback remains to be seen. Earlier, Kiffin said Corral would have the edge because of Plumlee playing baseball in the spring. COVID-19 pandemic wiped away the college baseball season, however, and Kiffin recently was quoted saying that it is a wash. Their styles obviously are dramatically different.
If Ole Miss can’t get serviceable play from either one, the passing game will most likely be better than it was last season.
Rushing offense: Worse
Ole Miss likely won’t rush for 250 yards per game merely due to more balanced play calling. Heck, last year the Rebels almost broke the program record for rushing yards in a season. They finished with 3,015, just shy of the 1957 group that amassed 3,063. Last year also was the first the Rebels averaged more than 200 yards rushing since 2010.
Kiffin rushed the football 63 percent of the time last year at FAU for 166 yards per game. Lebby’s offense at UCF ran right at 55 percent for 223 yards per game. Neither scheme relies as heavily on the quarterback’s legs as much as Rodriguez’s did, though they will likely cater to Plumlee’s running ability in some form because his speed is too elite of a weapon not to.
The Rebels lose a quality back in Scottie Phillips but return the former 5-star recruit Ealy, Snoop Conner and Isaiah Woullard. This position might be the deepest on the roster and the coaching staff will have a versatile collection of skillsets to be creative with in the running game.
As mentioned, the yardage totally will likely be less, but that will be due to more balance and less predictable play-calling, and will likely yield better results.
A more experienced offense and a defense that continues to improve talent-wise, coupled with a new coaching staff, Ole Miss will be a better team than it was in 2019. Coming off of a 4-8 season, the bar is not set very high.
The pandemic has every program facing an uphill climb, but first-year coaching staffs face an even steeper ascent. Kiffin has his hands full figuring out the quarterback competition and the offensive line is a question mark despite returning four starters. But the skill pieces are in place for the Rebels to push for a bowl game.