Previewing what's ahead this spring for the Rebels
Ole Miss begins its second offseason under coach Lane Kiffin looking to build off a promising 2020 season and finish ’21 as a top 25 team. The Rebels return 17 starters from last year’s squad that finished 5-5 overall and won four SEC games – the most since ‘15.
The strength of Kiffin’s 2020 squad was a high-powered offense led by quarterback Matt Corral and a deep collection of skill talent. The Rebels will be prolific on offense once again with Corral at the controls, along with the return of Jerrion Ealy, Snoop Conner and a collection of playmakers at receiver. Four starters also return up front to form one of the SEC’s top offensive lines. But for Ole Miss to finish as a top 25 team in 2021, Kiffin has to find some answers for a defense that allowed just over 38 points a game last fall.
5 Storylines to Watch During Ole Miss’ Spring Practices
1. The Next Step for Matt Corral
Is Corral the best returning quarterback in the SEC? The California native certainly has a strong argument for the top spot with Mac Jones and Kyle Trask off to the NFL. However, Corral still has room to develop in his second year under Lane Kiffin. In 10 games last fall, Corral threw for 3,337 yards and 29 touchdowns to 14 picks and connected on 70.9 percent of his passes. How important is taking the next step this offseason? Consider this: Corral tossed all 14 of his interceptions in losses and zero in the five victories by Ole Miss.
2. Where Does John Rhys Plumlee Play?
With receiver Elijah Moore and tight end Kenny Yeboah off to the NFL, Kiffin and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby have to deploy new faces around Corral. One of those players could be Plumlee. The former quarterback (and Ole Miss baseball player) could move from backup QB to all-purpose weapon or receiver – but that’s not expected to be decided until later in the offseason. Plumlee attempted just seven passes last fall but caught six, including five for 73 yards in the bowl win over Indiana. The junior simply has too much talent and versatility to be on the bench as a backup. If the coaching staff and Plumlee agree on the move, he’s got a chance to be an all-purpose weapon for Kiffin.
3. Depth at Receiver and Tight End
Even with Moore and Yeboah leaving Oxford, Corral isn’t necessarily hurting for options on the outside. Dontario Drummond (25 catches), Jonathan Mingo (27), and Braylon Sanders (14) form a talented trio on the outside. But the spring is a good time for developing depth and getting new players acclimated to the offense. WKU transfer Jahcour Pearson (76 catches in ’19) will compete for time, along with Jadon Jackson (five catches), Marc Britt II, Dannis Jackson, junior college prospect Qua Davis and incoming freshmen Bralon Brown, JJ Henry and Brandon Buckhaulter.
Chase Rogers and Casey Kelly (out for spring due to injury) will headline the top options to replace Yeboah at tight end in 2021. Expect sophomore Damarcus Thomas to also get a look this offseason.
4. One Question Mark Up Front
With four starters back, this should be one of the better offensive lines in the SEC. The front five allowed just 19 sacks and cleared the way for rushers to average 4.6 yards a carry last season. The lone void up front to fill is at right tackle with the departure of Royce Newman. Eli Acker was listed as Newman’s backup last season, while Hamilton Hall worked behind Nick Broeker at left tackle. Either player could be an option here. The spring is also a good opportunity to work on the overall depth of this group.
5. Find Answers on Defense
We could spend multiple sections on the defense, but let’s group them all into one here. To put it mildly, Ole Miss struggled on this side of the ball in 2020. The Rebels ranked last in the SEC against the run (206.9 ypg), surrendered 38.3 points a game, allowed 15 plays of 40-plus yards, and gave up 6.7 yards per play. But the news isn’t all bad for Kiffin: The bulk of the defensive two-deep is back, and the 2021 recruiting haul features promising recruits up front like Isaiah Iton and Jamond Gordon from the junior college ranks, along with touted freshman Tywone Malone.
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