Last season was obviously enormously disappointing for Ole Miss and its fans. Of course, no one expected the Rebels to compete for double-digit wins, but even the most pessimistic fans didn’t anticipate a 5-game losing streak to end the year.
The good thing? It’s all over, and it’s officially on to 2019, a season that represents a fresh opportunity and the first full season in what seems like decades without an NCAA investigation or sanctions looming overhead.
Spring is here and Matt Luke and his revamped staff must accomplish some key goals this offseason.
5. Rebuild receiving corps
The Rebels were blessed with one of the more talented receiving units in the country last year with A.J. Brown (85 receptions, 1,320-yards, 6 TD’s), DaMarkus Lodge (65, 877, 4) and NFL Combine King D.K. Metcalf (26, 569, 5). All three have to be replaced, however, as both Brown and Metcalf left early for the NFL and Lodge graduated. The good thing is the Rebels have had a lot of success on the recruiting trail, so they’re not working with an empty cupboard.
Elijah Moore (36, 398, 2) and Braylon Sanders (16, 271, 1) will obviously go into the spring as the go-to targets for QB Matt Corral, and each has flashed game-breaking ability in limited time. They’ll need guys like Miles Battle and Demarcus Gregory, two highly prized recruits from the 2018 class, to begin making developmental strides. And of course, anything they can get out of Dannis Jackson and Jonathan Mingo, two 4-star prospects who signed in the 2019 class, will be an added bonus. Receivers coach Jacob Peeler has plenty to work with in this group.
4. Get Sam Williams up to speed
The defense was simply horrible in 2018, but there is cautious optimism that the unit will be improved with nearly everyone coming back in 2019 and a lauded and proven coach in Mike MacIntyre taking over as coordinator. One of the greatest weaknesses last year was the inability to consistently pressure the quarterback. They finished 90th nationally, averaging just 1.83 sacks per game. The fact that arguably their best pass rusher, Markel Winters, led the team with just 4 sacks gives you an idea of how bad it was. This is why it’s so important that they get Sam Williams up to speed as quickly as possible.
Williams was one of the top-ranked prospects to sign with the Rebels in the Early Signing Period, considered by 247sports to be the 7th-best JUCO prospect in the 2019 class. The 6-4, 250-pound edge rusher appears to be a perfect fit for the new flexible 3-4 scheme that Mac will slowly implement, as Williams can not only rush from a 2-point, stand up position at OLB, but also from a 3-point stance, with his hand in the dirt as a 4-3 DE. That kind of versatility will be invaluable for Mac as he tries to find the right combination of players for various roles in the new scheme.
3. Develop new leaders in locker room
If you paid any attention to the NFL Combine, you would have noticed that Ole Miss sent 9 players to Indianapolis, which was 4th-most among all college football programs (yep, that’s a harsh reminder of how much this team underperformed last year). WR’s D.K. Metcalf, DaMarkus Lodge and A.J. Brown, TE Dawson Knox, QB Jordan Ta’amu, OT Greg Little, OG Javon Patterson and DB’s Zedrick Woods and Ken Webster not only provided a lot of production last year, but they also provided an enormous amount of leadership, as well. That leadership needs to be replaced.
Obviously, QB Matt Corral will step into a leadership position as the face of the team, and I doubt very seriously he’ll have any problem getting guys to fall in behind him after what we saw in the Egg Bowl. But others will have to step up as well. RB Scottie Phillips, OT Alex Givens and Sanders at WR, as the more experienced players at their position groups, seem like obvious choices. Defensively, DT’s Josiah Coatney and Benito Jones, LB Mohamed Sanogo and CB Jalen Julius already were considered leaders last year, so seeing them progress would be beneficial as well, especially since everyone is learning a new scheme.
2. Settle on new offensive line
The Rebels are losing talent and experience, as they’ll not only have to replace LT Greg Little (presumed 1st-round pick this April), but LG Javon Patterson (4-year starter), C Sean Rawlings (4-year starter) and senior swing tackle Jordan Sims, who also had starting experience. Throw in the fact that they’re also losing backup RT Tony Gray to transfer, and the Rebels are replacing half of their 2-deep up front.
Fortunately, they’re bringing back RG Ben Brown and RT Alex Givens and are adding a huge class of linemen from their 2019 recruiting class, but finding the right mix will undoubtedly be a challenge for respected line coach Jack Bicknell. Royce Newman, Bryce Matthews and Eli Johnson will likely get the first crack at LT, LG and C, respectively, with Chandler Tuitt also looking to work his way into the mix. And of course, don’t be surprised if freshman like Nick Broeker or Darius Thomas carve out roles in the rotation.
1. Install new schemes
Of course, the most important thing the Rebels need to accomplish this offseason is to successfully implement the new offensive and defensive schemes, and try and get the players comfortable as quickly as possible. Both Rodriguez and MacIntyre are fantastic coaches with decades of experience, so I wouldn’t be concerned about them rushing the implementation process, nor forcing schematic fits on ill-fitted personnel.
Still, bringing in two new coordinators in a single offseason and having the entire roster learn new playbooks is a tall order. This is a task that usually takes place in year 1 of a coaches tenure, when the head coach is still in his honeymoon phase and there’s patience and optimism within the fan base. Luke and company don’t have that luxury in 2019.
Even with proven coaches like Rodriguez and MacIntyre, it takes time for the players to not only build a rapport with the coaches, but feel comfortable running new plays with new terminology. The quicker they can get the players comfortable running the new schemes, the faster they’ll play, and the faster they play the more confident they’ll play.
Simply put, this is a huge offseason for Matt Luke and the Ole Miss Rebels.