High expectations entering the 2016 season materialized into a 5-7 season and no bowl invite for Ole Miss. There will be no postseason appearance this fall either, as the school has imposed a one-year bowl ban in the midst of an ongoing NCAA investigation. Additionally, coach Hugh Freeze resigned in July due to personal misconduct. With Freeze out of the picture, Matt Luke will guide the Rebels as an interim coach for 2017. The focus on the field will center on sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson and the offense’s potential.
Previewing Ole Miss Football’s Offense for 2017
Shea Patterson, the No. 1 quarterback in the 2016 recruiting class, lost his redshirt and became the starter after Chad Kelly tore an ACL with three games remaining. He led the Rebels to a win at Texas A&M in his debut before lopsided losses at Vanderbilt and at home to Mississippi State. Patterson’s completion percentage was only 54.8 due in part to an inordinate amount of dropped passes.
Patterson has a plethora of targets with big, physical sophomores A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf the most intriguing. He will not have tight end Evan Engram, who had 65 catches and eight touchdowns while narrowly missing 1,000 yards last season.
The offensive line returns four starters and showed increased physical play in the spring. Depth is inexperienced but promising. Sophomore left tackle Greg Little, a five-star recruit, could blossom.
The running game has interesting potential under new coordinator Phil Longo, whose offenses at Sam Houston posted gaudy numbers in recent years. Jordan Wilkins and Eric Swinney both missed the entire 2016 season. Swinney was rated among the top-15 running backs in the 2015 recruiting class.
Previewing Ole Miss Football’s Defense for 2017
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Ole Miss struggled across the board defensively in 2016, ranking 100th or worse in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and red-zone defense. Wesley McGriff, who was on Freeze’s first staff in 2012 as the defensive backs coach, is the new defensive coordinator. He has installed a base 4-3 defense.
The defensive line has the potential to be outstanding. End Marquis Haynes, who flirted with the NFL Draft, is third on the school’s career sack list with 24.5. If junior tackle Breeland Speaks bounces back from a disappointing season, the run defense should be much improved.
The key could be the play of the linebackers, which was a position in flux a year ago. There’s no can’t-miss prospect arriving on campus, but there are lots of bodies and a measure of experience in rangy senior DeMarquis Gates.
Sophomore Myles Hartsfield made an impressive move from strong safety to corner in the spring. He will team with senior Ken Webster, who is returning from a torn ACL, to form a solid cornerback tandem.
Previewing Nebraska Football’s Specialists for 2017
Kicker Gary Wunderlich is back for his senior season after earning third-team All-America honors from the Associated Press. The Lou Groza Award semifinalist connected on 22-of-23 field goal attempts and led the nation with a 95.7 percent success rate. Wunderlich split time at punter with Will Gleeson, who also returns.
If the opportunity to play in a bowl game is the only motivation, the 2017 season is already lost. Ole Miss players insist it is not. They found out in late February they have no chance at bowl game, not because of what may or may not happen on the field, but because of the school’s own ban, part of its self-sanctioning amid an NCAA investigation that approaches its fifth birthday.
“We were devastated, but the next morning we had a 6 o’clock workout, and everybody showed up with high energy,” junior offensive lineman Javon Patterson says. “That showed a lot about our team.”
Spring practice also showed that Ole Miss — with two new coordinators and three new position coaches — is still pretty good on offense. And that question marks remain on defense.
The Rebels want to make amends for a disappointing season that saw them ranked as high as No. 11 before falling to 5–7. Twelve regular-season games, to them, is far more important than one postseason exhibition. “We’ve moved way beyond that,” Haynes says. “There are no frowns, none of that. We’re all here as a family, and we’re going to keep moving forward.”