Plumlee's shift to receiver could change ceiling of Ole Miss offense
For the first time in over half a decade, Ole Miss’ trip to SEC Media Days was relevant for all the right reasons. With a half-decade-long NCAA investigation and 2 years of toiling around the bottom of the conference under Matt Luke, there’s a sense of optimism surrounding the Rebels entering Year 2 of the Lane Kiffin era.
Kiffin, quarterback Matt Corral and Jaylon Jones represented Ole Miss at SEC Media Days in Hoover on Tuesday. Kiffin and Corral are the driving force behind the newfound sense of optimism. Kiffin, along with offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, orchestrated arguably the best offense in the conference in 2020 and turned Corral from a promising prospect lacking continuity into a budding star in the process.
If Ole Miss is going to meet expectations in 2021, the offense will shoulder a heavy burden — just as it did a season ago as that unit carried the league’s worst defense to a 5-5 record. While the Rebels hope to be improved from both a talent and a schematic standpoint on defense, the offense simply has to be the best or one of the best in the SEC for the team to be competitive. A lot of that will depend on how successful Ole Miss is in replacing Elijah Moore.
“Obviously, Elijah is replaceable and we won’t have another receiver like him,” Corral told SEC Network. “But we are loaded in the receiving corps and I believe in those guys.”
Perhaps the most intriguing storyline surrounding this offense in its pursuit of replacing more is now-former quarterback John Rhys Plumlee and his transition to receiver. Plumlee, who played very sparingly at quarterback last season, moved to slot receiver in the team’s Outback Bowl win over Indiana — mostly out of necessity due to opt-outs and injuries — and caught 5 passes, including the most important reception of the game to help seal the win. Ever since that game, there’s been a shroud of mystery surrounding dual-sport talent and his future with the football program. Plumlee played baseball and missed spring practice, and neither he nor Kiffin ever shed any light on whether this move to receiver was permanent, though most around the program thought it would be. Kiffin officially conceded that Plumlee has moved to receiver, making for an intriguing story to follow through fall camp.
“I’m excited to utilize him and see what we can do with him,” Kiffin said. “For a guy to go and make big plays in a bowl game playing a new position, this isn’t Little League where you just go throw a guy in there and say, ‘Go over there and make plays.’ This is major college football and that was a top-10 team in the Outback Bowl. For him to do that, there’s not many kids that do that anymore. They’d be somewhere else. They’d take their ball and go home. It says a lot about him and his feelings for the university. He’s a special kid way beyond the player.”
Plumlee’s skill set makes him a tantalizing option at slot receiver, a position that was the centerpiece of the offense last year. His speed and lateral quickness are as elite as you’ll find in the sport, but how quickly can he pick up the intricacies to a degree that would make him a consistent weapon? If he’s able to become a threat, it changes the ceiling of this offense. Ole Miss will presumably use running back Jerrion Ealy in a variety of ways and move him out of the backfield sporadically. If Plumlee becomes a viable option at the slot, it will only make this offense more dangerous and Ealy’s presence more taxing on defenses.
The rest of the receiving corps is relatively unproven. Senior Braylon Sanders is the most accomplished in terms of on-field production, but he’s struggled to stay on the field. Dontario Drummond and Jonathan Mingo have shown promise in short flashes, but have yet to produce the consistency that cements them as legitimate threats who can stretch the field. Dannis and Jaden Jackson, along with incoming freshman J.J. Henry, are viable options, too, but Plumlee’s ascension could go a long way to render this question moot.
Ole Miss will be a good offense, even if a volume receiver doesn’t emerge. The Rebels return a loaded backfield that led the SEC in rushing in 2020, spearheaded by Ealy, Snoop Conner and Henry Parrish, but if the Rebels can find a consistent deep threat and a dependable slot receiver, the offense has the potential to be the most explosive in the sport and could be the difference between six or seven wins and eight or nine.
For now, all eyes are on Plumlee and how he factors into raising the ceiling of an offense ready to take flight with a veteran quarterback behind the wheel.