A new-look Ole Miss coaching staff debuted Tuesday when the Rebels opened spring practice. Third-year head coach Matt Luke brought in two new coordinators — and former head coaches — in the offseason in Mike MacIntyre and Rich Rodriguez. MacIntyre will oversee an Ole Miss defense that returns eight starters from 2018, while Rodriguez will attempt to recreate his brand of offensive wizardry with new playmakers at the skill positions.
Ole Miss went 5-7 overall last year, including a 1-7 mark in SEC play to finish sixth in West. The Rebels found themselves with a 5-2 record midway through October but dropped their final five games of the season. Fourteen starters return from 2018 but Ole Miss will seek to fill key vacancies at wide receiver, quarterback, and along the offensive line.
The Rebels have a total of 15 practices to fine-tune things before the April 7 Grove Bowl.
5 Storylines to Watch During Ole Miss’ Spring Practice
1. Will Matt Corral emerge as the starter at QB?
One of Rich Rodriguez' first order of business will be to identify a starting signal-caller following the departure of Jordan Ta'amu. As a freshman last year, Corral saw playing time in four games, allowing him to preserve his redshirt status this season. The 6-foot-1, 203-pound California native completed 16 of 22 passes for 239 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
Corral took snaps against FCS opponent Southern Illinois, ULM, South Carolina, and in the Egg Bowl against Mississippi State. He posted season-best numbers against the Warhawks from the Sun Belt as he threw for 143 yards and two touchdowns to go with 78 rushing yards and another score.
While Corral’s arm has proven to be SEC-ready, his abilities as a runner complement Rodriguez’s play-calling style. The former U.S. All-American honoree gained 83 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries last year.
While most of the attention will be on Corral, early enrollees Grant Tisdale (starred at Allen High School in Texas) in-state product Kinkead Dent (Jackson Academy) are already on campus and will take part in spring practice as well.
2. Mike MacIntyre’s early impact on defense
Following his dismissal as Colorado's head coach, MacIntyre came back to Ole Miss to reunite with Matt Luke. The two previously served together on David Cutcliffe's staff at Duke, during which time MacIntyre was named the national assistant coach of the year in 2009 when he was the Blue Devils’ defensive coordinator. Luke and MacIntyre also spent time together in Oxford in the late '90s and early 2000s.
MacIntyre, who was the Buffaloes' head coach for six seasons and led the team to the Pac-12 Championship Game in 2016, will look to improve an Ole Miss defense that allowed 36.2 points per game last year. He'll have some talented pieces to work with in defensive tackle Benito Jones, linebacker Mohamed Sanogo, and defensive back Myles Hartsfield. The Rebels will employ a 3-4 scheme in 2019.
3. New wideouts
Between a graduation and two early departures, Ole Miss has a large void at wide receiver that needs to be filled. Gone are the Rebels' top three receivers in A.J. Brown, DaMarkus Lodge and D.K. Metcalf. With them go more than two-thirds of the team's receiving yards (2,766 of 4,157) and better than 70 percent of the touchdown catches (15 of 21). Brown was the SEC-leading receiver in terms of yards and finished second in catches while Metcalf averaged a ridiculous 22 yards per reception (on 26 grabs) over seven games before he suffered a season-ending neck injury.
With those three gone, the leading returning pass catcher is sophomore Elijah Moore, who was third on the team in 2018 with 36 receptions that went for 398 yards with two touchdowns. The Rebels also return Braylon Sanders, a rising junior who averaged 17 yards per catch last season and is the most experienced of the receivers with 16 games played.
A pair of former four-star recruits, Demarcus Gregory and Miles Battle, should factor in more after redshirting last season. And two members of a large and promising 2019 recruiting class, junior college transfer Dontario Drummond (East Mississippi Community College) and true freshman Jadon Jackson (Bentonville West High School in Arkansas), have enrolled early and will take part in spring practice.
4. Revamped offensive line
Corral's success in the passing game is predicated on an Ole Miss offensive line that replaces four starters. The former Rebel quartet accumulated 127 starts, but perhaps no member will be missed more than left tackle Greg Little. The second-team All-American is a potential first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
Luke will turn to SEC All-Freshman selection Ben Brown and senior Alex Givens to emerge as leaders up front. Brown, a right guard, had a promising season last year after tallying 12 starts in which he didn’t yield any sacks. The 6-foot-6, 305-pound Givens has made 24 starts (34 total appearances) in his first three seasons, including all 12 at right tackle in 2018.
Six other linemen are contending for playing time alongside Brown and Givens.
5. Scottie Phillips
While Ole Miss' offense enters spring with a number of questions marks, Phillips brings familiarity and experience in the backfield. He was well on his way to a 1,000-yard campaign last season before he suffered an ankle injury in early November against Texas A&M. After sitting out the following game at Vanderbilt, he returned for the regular-season finale against Mississippi State but was ineffective (four carries for one yard). He still finished his junior season sixth in the SEC in rushing yards per game (84.4) while averaging a healthy 6.1 yards per carry with 12 rushing touchdowns (tied for fifth).
More importantly, Phillips is healthy and ready to go for spring practices. He’ll run behind a revamped offensive line but should again be one of the SEC's most productive backs who will benefit greatly with Rodriguez' addition.
Tylan Knight and Isaiah Woullard also will see time this spring in the backfield.
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star, Hayes also has been an invited guest on "The Paul Finebaum Show." Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.