Post-spring report card: What Ole Miss does well, needs to do better
Ole Miss entered a crucial offseason in 2019. Not only were the Rebels replacing numerous key starters (and potentially early round draft picks), but they installed new schemes on both sides of the ball and replaced more than half the coaching staff.
The Grove Bowl obviously didn’t paint a perfect picture as far as what the team will look like this fall, but it did give us the first public viewing of how the new and returning personnel look in the new schemes.
This should go without saying, but there’s an awful lot of work to do before fall rolls around, but considering the short amount of time they’ve had to work so far, noticeable developments have been made since last year.
QB situation: B-
Well, Matt Corral is the guy. This much we know. What we knew of his game from the little bit that we saw of him last year was that he had a big arm, is a fiery leader and will be the first guy to defend one of his teammates in a scrap. That’s a good jumping off point.
He showed improvement this spring, not only in terms of his mechanics, but his ability to read and process defenses and coverages, and played very well in the spring game, despite not having guys like D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown and DaMarkus Lodge to throw to. He looks like an ideal fit in the new offense run by Rich Rodriguez, not only showing the arm talent to make NFL-caliber throws to all three levels, but the mobility to keep defenses off balance.
We also got our first look at his backups this year, two early enrollees in Kinkead Dent and Grant Tisdale, both of whom similarly look well suited for the offense. Dent is built like a telephone pole and has a huge arm, but for the sake of his mother’s sanity, he needs to learn how to slide. Tisdale is the latest big name to come out of powerhouse Allen High School (Texas), and made several nice plays in the Grove Bowl. Talent isn’t lacking for Ole Miss at QB, but there’s a severe shortage of experience.
Running game: B
Scottie Phillips, who rushed for 928 yards and 12 touchdowns last year (averaging 6.1 yards per carry) didn’t play in the Grove Bowl, and he didn’t need to. We’ve seen him produce at a high level, and we saw what happened to the run game at the end of the year when he got banged up. Still, he’ll return this fall and there’s no reason to think that, even with carries getting split up among the stable of backs, he won’t again contend for 1,000 yards.
With Phillips out, we got our first look at Snoop Conner, an early enrollee, and he was impressive. He has a similar running style of Phillips – decisive, powerful, explosive and can pick up yards after contact – and looks like he could be a major contributor to the offense this year. Isaiah Woullard (who was second on the team with 428 yards last year) returns as does D’Vaughn Pennamon, who missed all of last year injury. This is a much deeper unit than last year, and expect Corral to also be a contributor to the ground game.
Passing game (including WRs and TEs): B-
Corral looks like a stud and he’ll keep the passing game viable, and along with a solid rushing attack, provide for a very balanced offense. The receiving corps won’t be quite as nasty, but fortunately for the Rebs they’ve done a terrific job recruiting the position in recent years and have talent returning.
Elijah Moore and Braylon Sanders look like reliable playmakers on the outside, and Tylan Knight looks like an absolute game-breaker in the slot. Miles Battle, Demarcus Gregory look hungry to take on a bigger role, and early enrollees Dontario Drummond and Jadon Jackson also flashed. Tight end is still a question mark until Octavius Cooley proves otherwise.
Offensive line: C-
The line lost three longtime stalwarts with C Sean Rawlings and LG Javon Patterson graduating and LT Greg Little leaving early for the NFL Draft. It’s unrealistic to believe they’ll get equal or better play from their replacements this year, but coach Jack Bicknell is one of the best in the business and has been moving guys around this spring to not only provide rotational flexibility, but find out which combination works best.
RT Alex Givens and RG Ben Brown are All-SEC-caliber players, but there’s question marks at the other 3 spots and the depth behind them. Guys like Royce Newman, Bryce Mathews, Eli Johnson and Chandler Tuitt all need productive summers and the hope is that one of the 7 incoming freshmen this fall are ready to see some snaps. There’s bodies here, but a lot of work to be done.
Run defense: C-
Hey, it can’t get any worse, right? Sad, but unfortunately (and fortunately, if you think about it) true. In all seriousness, however, expect the defense, both run and pass, to be vastly improved fundamentally under coordinator Mike MacIntyre, who has installed a new 3-4 scheme.
The play calling was predictably vanilla in the Grove Bowl and we didn’t see anything other than the most basic of stunts and blitzes, but guys were finally getting run fits. They finally were identifying and making pre-snap reads. Throw in the fact that virtually everyone returns up front, and you can’t help but feel a bit optimistic that the unit won’t get carved up in the run game for the fourth year in a row. Oh, and Mohamed Sanogo might set a school record for tackles this year. This kid has made huge strides since arriving on campus two years ago.
Passing defense: C+
This is an area where MacIntyre specializes, and he tends to make dramatic strides to the secondary wherever he goes, so there already should be some level of confidence that the pass defense will improve. Mac has some pieces to work with, too, with guys like Keidron Smith, Myles Hartsfield and C.J. Miller returning and Jalen Julius coming back from injury.
The pass defense looked decent in the Grove Bowl for the most part, but gave up their share of big plays, too. If the front seven can generate any kind of pressure on a somewhat consistent basis, the pass defense looks like it could be a strength.
Special teams: B+
Both kickers, PK Luke Logan and P Mac Brown, return and there’s no reason to think they won’t be just as reliable and effective this year as they were last year. Logan connected on 22-of-27 FG attempts and Jones averaged 41.3 yards per punt, making them one of the better kicking duos in the SEC.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the offensive line is the biggest question mark at this point. It’s easy to just lump the defense as a whole in there as where the most improvement needs to come from, but considering the amount of returning personnel, there’s cautious optimism that the unit is trending in the right direction. The offensive line is working in numerous fresh faces and will undoubtedly be playing a handful of true freshmen this fall, so how quickly Luke and Bicknell can figure out the best combination will be crucial this fall, especially considering how much the Rebels plan to run the ball.