6 offseason priorities for Ole Miss
Ole Miss enters this offseason with as much momentum behind the program since, arguably, after the 2016 Sugar Bowl — and this time there isn’t an ongoing NCAA investigation clouding the program’s long-term trajectory.
The Rebels finished 5-5 in Year 1 of the Lane Kiffin era and inked a top-20 recruiting class as well. The fan base is re-engaged. With that said, there is work to be done to climb up the SEC West ladder. As such, here are the Rebels’ top 6 priorities this offseason.
1. Pinpoint a go-to receiver
This is an obvious one as Elijah Moore moves on to professional football. The Rebels got a 2-game peek at what this offense might look like without Moore. The first was not pretty, despite putting up 48 points and more than 500 yards in a loss at LSU. Receivers struggled to create separation consistently, and that contributed to a 6-turnover game from Matt Corral. The second game, however, offered more positives as the Rebels threw for 342 yards in a 26-20 Outback Bowl win over Indiana. Dontario Drummond led the team with 110 yards and 6 grabs.
The biggest storyline, though, was quarterback-turned-receiver John Rhys Plumlee seeing his first extensive action as the slot receiver. He made the 2 biggest catches of the game and snared 5 passes for 73 yards. If Plumlee commits to being a receiver and learns the intricacies of the position, it changes the team’s ceiling in 2021. Outside of that, Ole Miss needs to find out whom they can count on as a go-to guy among the likes of Jonathan Mingo and Jadon Jackson as well as Drummond and Braylon Sanders, who both announced they are returning next year. The Rebels added a couple of pieces in this 2021 recruiting class, but their best bet at a reliable target likely lies on the current roster. I would take a hard look at the transfer market for an impact guy, and I imagine Kiffin is doing the same.
This is the biggest priority for this offense heading into 2021.
2. Strengthen the defensive line
The center of Ole Miss’ struggles on defense this season was the line. The interior struggled to stop the run, and the Rebels were unable to generate a consistent pass rush on the edge. They got good news in this department on Monday with Sam Williams, the most talented pass rusher on the roster, and Tariqious Tisdale announcing their intent to return for next season. Even with those 2, Ole Miss needs more depth and athleticism here in a hurry. A pair of junior college defensive tackle signees in Jamond Gordon and Isaiah Iton should help tremendously. Cedric Johnson came on strong late in the season, and another guy emerging will help the cause. The defensive line will be an indicator as to how improved Ole Miss is defensively in 2021.
3. Keep offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby
Seems simple, right? Easier said than done. Lebby deserves and has gotten a large amount of credit for this offense’s explosiveness, as well Corral’s ascension to stardom. Those were the 2 biggest surprises of the season. Lebby is likely a head coach somewhere sooner rather than later, and he will be a hot commodity for other coordinator jobs as well as head coaching positions. Ole Miss may have already accomplished this goal by signing Lebby to a new 2-year deal on Jan. 6. Outside of an outlandish offer elsewhere or a head coaching gig becoming available, Lebby is likely staying in Oxford for at least 1 more year, which is a significant development for Corral and this offense. Corral will now enter an offseason with the same head coach and coordinator for the first time in his career, with a chance to build on a 2020 season in which the offense was one of the best in the sport.
4. Solidify a plan with Plumlee
Yes, this is similar to the first priority listed. But if the Outback Bowl proved anything, it is that Plumlee’s skill set is too dynamic and unique to keep confined to the sideline — which is where he spent most of the season, aside from a few snaps per game. Plumlee has said in the past that he views himself as a quarterback, but Ole Miss already has one in Corral and a talented backup on the way in Luke Altmyer. Was him moving to slot for the bowl game purely out of necessity (Ole Miss had 4 scharlship receivers available) and wanting to help his team, or does it suggest a change in his mindset? No one knows for now, but a question facing Kiffin and the offensive staff is this: What is the plan with Plumlee? If he decides not to transfer to get an opportunity at quarterback elsewhere, find a plan and make it concrete. His speed is dynamic, and his potential at the slot is tantalizing. That is the plan I would try to go with if he is willing. There is both a need and a potential for individual stardom there.
If Plumlee is around in 2021, he needs to play more than he did in 2020.
5. Pursue a transfer linebacker
Ole Miss will get Lakia Henry back next year, and Momo Sanogo announced his intention to return. Even with these 2 pieces, the Rebels would be wise to look at finding an immediate impact guy at linebacker, whether from the junior college ranks during the February signing period or through the transfer and grad transfer market. The linebacking corps was sufficient in 2020, but not nearly good enough to overcome the deficiencies around it. A blue-chip linebacker who can contribute immediately would be a significant boost for the defense in 2021.
6. Find a kicker
Forgive the lack of a solution on this one, but the problem must be fixed somehow. Ole Miss was horrid in the kicking game this year, as Luke Logan struggled mightily for a 2nd consecutive season. Kiffin often refused to kick as a result, and the offense was hyperaggressive to a fault at times because of it. Logan was 6-for-10 on the year and was just 1-for-5 from outside 30 yards. The kicker position, particularly in college, is a fickle one that can be difficult to solve. Ole Miss signed 3-star Caden Costa to their 2021 class. Whether he is ready to fill this role immediately remains to be seen. A lack of clear candidates aside, Ole Miss simply must be better in the kicking game in 2021.