Ole Miss started spring camp with a laundry list of things to accomplish, which is to be expected considering the amount of turnover throughout the roster and the coaching staff.
There are plenty of fresh faces around, that’s for sure, and slowly but surely, head coach Matt Luke is assembling the staff, scheme and team in his image. It should go without saying, much needs to be accomplished in the remaining 10 practices. Here are 10 things I want to see as the Rebels get closer to April 6’s Grove Bowl.
10. Someone step up at WR (and TE)
Last year the Rebels completed 282 passes for 4,157 yards and 21 touchdowns. A.J. Brown, DaMarkus Lodge, D.K. Metcalf and Dawson Knox were responsible for catching 191 of those passes for 3,050 yards and 15 touchdowns. That’s a ridiculous amount of production to replace in a single offseason. The good news is that there’s some talent returning with Elijah Moore (36 receptions, 398 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Braylon Sanders (16, 271, 1), and 2 signees from the 2019 recruiting class – Jadon Jackson and Donatrio Dummond — are already enrolled and going through spring ball. The time is now for fresh faces to step up and stake their roles.
9. Settle on left side of the offensive line
Gone are LT Greg Little, LG Javon Patterson and C Sean Rawlings, who either graduated or left early for the NFL. Those three started a combined 108 games over the past four years, meaning the Rebels are losing a wealth of experience, leadership and talent. As is the case with the receiving corps, it’s time for the younger guys like Royce Newman, Chandler Tuitt, Bryce Matthews and Eli Johnson to step up. Ben Brown and Alex Givens return on the right side, but figuring out the left side of the line and settling on a starting lineup this spring will make for one less thing to accomplish in fall camp.
8. Pass rushers emerge
There’s a myriad reasons as to why the defense was so inept last year, but chief among them was the inability to consistently pressure the quarterback. In fact, they were dead last in the SEC with just 22 sacks on the season. The hope is that the switch to a 3-4 defense will help remedy the stagnant pass rush by trying to put more speed on the field and present different looks to opposing offenses. They need a smooth transition to OLB from former DE’s like Qaadir Sheppard, Charles Wiley and Victor Evans. In a perfect world, early enrollee and former JUCO pass rushing dynamo Sam Williams becomes the force off the edge they so desperately need to make this defense work.
7. Sophomores continue development
The Rebels undoubtedly will be one of the youngest teams in the SEC this fall. With the stars from the 2016 class leaving early for the NFL and the NCAA cloud destroying the class of 2017, the 2018 class is going to play a huge role on the field this fall. This spring represents a great opportunity for the redshirt freshman and true sophomores to really develop as they’ll get plenty of reps with the 1s and 2s. Luke needs these guys to mature quickly.
6. Find depth at RB
Scottie Phillips was a revelation at tailback last year, rushing for 923 yards (6.3 YPC) and 12 touchdowns in his first 9 games before going down with an ankle injury. When he wasn’t in, however, the Rebels lost their juice in the ground attack, averaging just 2.67 YPC in the final 3 games and reaching the end zone just once. Simply put, the Rebels have to develop depth at RB this spring. Isaiah Woullard needs to continue progressing, D’Vaughn Pennamon has to ease back into game speed and early enrollee Snoop Conner needs to adjust to the increased competition level.
5. Matt Corral entrenches himself as ‘The Guy’
Ole Miss has gotten some of the best QB play in the SEC since 2012, featuring a nice run of quality gunslingers like Bo Wallace, Chad Kelly, Shea Patterson and Jordan Ta’amu. The torch has officially been passed to the fiery Matt Corral, who quickly became a fan (and team) favorite with his vigor in the Egg Bowl.
There’s not really going to even be a “battle” for the starting job this spring, despite the presence of early enrollee’s Grant Tisdale and Kinkead Dent. Corral has the job, now he needs to become “The Guy,” and not just on the field – in the huddle, on the sidelines, in the quarterback room, team meetings, practice, weight room, class room, press room, etc.
It’s time for him to really become the leader this team needs him to be.
4. Implement new schemes
Installing a new scheme, whether on offense or defense, is never easy. Installing two new schemes (one on offense and one on defense) in a single offseason is a Hurculean task, one that usually only takes place in Year 1 of a coaching staff, when the fan base is still patient.
Luke doesn’t have that luxury, but he will be aided by his two new coordinators, Rich Rodriguez and Mike MacIntyre, who have a combined 63 years of coaching experience and have each rebuilt numerous programs from the ground up before as head coaches. Simply put, these coaches have to get the new playbooks installed quickly and efficiently, because once they do …
3. … Players feel comfortable and confident
Right now, both the offense and defense is playing at quarter speed. Guys are still a bit unsure of what to do and where to go. That’s entirely natural when installing new playbooks. But you want to get things installed quickly and effectively, so guys stop thinking so much and simply play.
That’s when players will begin to feel comfortable and confident, and that’s when they’ll be able to go full tilt. There’s athleticism on this team, despite what naysayers will have you believe, but they can’t be burdened with hesitancy on the field.
2. Stay healthy
Far and away the most important thing this spring is to stay healthy. This can’t be emphasized enough. I’d be OK if Luke took away the pads entirely this spring and they only practiced in shells. Considering the current depth of the roster and the fact that new schemes being implemented on both sides of the ball, the most important thing is for guys to master the playbooks, and risking injury – especially to potential starters – sets everything back. Save the Oklahoma Drill for August, for now just get the install down and go into summer with a healthy roster.
1. Fans back away from the ledge
Look, I know the Ole Miss fan base was in damn near nuclear meltdown following the horrific Egg Bowl loss. Message boards were beyond boiling points, instead scorching to levels rivaled only by the heat of the sun. But you know what? Ever so quietly, the Rebels have had a good offseason.
Both coordinators, Phil Longo and Wesley McGriff, had to go, and they’re gone. Luke didn’t hastily rush to fill the positions with young, sexy names — instead he took a pragmatic and methodical approach, and made two fantastic hires with Rodriguez and MacIntyre. Many coaches have too much ego to hire guys with more experience and better resumes than they do, but that didn’t bother Luke, and that speaks volumes of his leadership.
The Rebels also did a great job of closing on National Signing Day, which hasn’t been the case the past few years, and are bringing in a deep and well-rounded class, one ranked by 247sports as No. 22 nationally. I know they could have done a better job in-state, but it’s a solid class that features both developmental depth and prospects who will have the opportunity to step in and contribute right away.
So, in my humble opinion, fans need to take a deep breath and slowly step back from the fire and brimstone ledge they were teetering on following the season.
No, this team likely won’t compete for 10 wins or an SEC West crown this year, but there’s a good mixture of ingredients cooking in Oxford right now, and as any good southern chef will tell you, the main course can’t be rushed.
Ideally, we’ll see some of that during the Grove Bowl.