Momentum is high at Ole Miss going into spring practices for the 2022 college football season. The Rebels won double-digit games (10) last fall for just the eighth time in school history and finished No. 11 in the final Associated Press poll.
Coach Lane Kiffin was rewarded with an upgraded contract and extension following the 10-3 finish, but the third-year coach has a busy spring on tap. Just 11 starters are back for ’22 and several key players from last season’s team – including quarterback Matt Corral – have departed Oxford.
Turnover on the coaching staff is another storyline to watch. The Rebels have five new assistants taking over this offseason, including different coordinators on both sides of the ball. Charlie Weis Jr. and John David Baker share the co-coordinator title on offense, while Maurice Crum and Chris Partridge hold that role on the other side of the ball. Additionally, Kiffin and Ole Miss were one of the biggest winners in acquiring transfers and immediate help for both sides of the ball is on its way from the portal.
What’s on tap for Ole Miss this spring? Here are five things to watch in Oxford:
5 Storylines to Watch During Ole Miss’ Spring Practices
1. The Post-Matt Corral Era at Quarterback
Winning 10 games again starts with finding the right answer at quarterback in ’22. Corral departed Oxford after ranking third in the SEC in total offense (304.8 ypg) and accounting for 31 total touchdowns last fall. Luke Altmyer played in five contests as the backup and connected on 20 of 37 throws for 192 yards and a touchdown with two picks. Although he holds an edge in experience at Ole Miss, the likely successor to Corral is USC transfer Jaxson Dart. The Utah native ranked as a four-star prospect and the No. 69 overall prospect in the ’21 signing class and was pressed into action right away with the Trojans last year. With starter Kedon Slovis lost due to injury against Washington State, Dart came off the bench to throw for 391 yards and four touchdowns and added 32 rushing yards in a 45-14 win. A knee injury suffered in that game forced Dart to miss the next four games. However, he returned to play in the final five contests and finished with 1,353 passing yards and nine scores. Dart’s skill set is a good fit for Kiffin’s scheme, but this spring is the first opportunity for the battle to unfold on the field.
2. New Faces at Running Back
The depth chart at running back is going to look significantly different in Oxford this offseason. Jerrion Ealy, Henry Parrish Jr. and Snoop Conner combined for 368 carries and 1,968 yards last season but none will return to the team for ’22. Kentrel Bullock (17 carries) is the top returning rusher from last fall, and Isaiah Woullard (94 career carries) also brings experience. Although those two hold an edge in experience, transfers Zach Evans (TCU) and Ulysses Bentley IV (SMU) will eventually emerge as the top backs. Evans – a former five-star prospect in the ’21 signing class – ran for 648 yards (7.04 per carry) with the Horned Frogs last fall. True freshman Quinshon Judkins is another name to watch.
3. Restock the Receiving Corps
Similar to the running back room, the receiving corps in Oxford was hit hard by departures. Gone are Dontario Drummond (76 catches for 1,028 yards), Braylon Sanders (549 yards), Jahcour Pearson (392), and John Rhys Plumlee (201). The effort to reload outside starts with Jonathan Mingo, who caught 22 passes for 346 yards in an injury-shortened ’21 campaign. Dannis Jackson also returns, with transfers Jordan Watkins (Louisville), Jalen Knox (Missouri) and Malik Heath (Mississippi State) also poised to push for time this offseason. Also, this spring is an opportunity for former four-star prospect Bralon Brown to make an impression. USC transfer Michael Trigg should be an emerging weapon at tight end as well.
4. Continue the Positive Progression on Defense
Under the direction of coordinator DJ Durkin, Ole Miss showed marked improvement on defense last fall. After allowing 40.3 points in SEC games in ’20, the Rebels cut that number to 28 a contest last year. Additionally, this defense cut down on the big plays allowed, gave up 5.5 yards per snap (down from 6.7), and ranked third in the SEC in pass efficiency defense. However, Durkin left to take over the defensive play-calling at Texas A&M, and Kiffin promoted Chris Partridge and hired Maurice Crum from WKU to share the co-coordinator role. Continuity on the staff and scheme should ease the transition, but Partridge hasn’t called plays over a full season at the FBS level. Can this defense continue its positive trend from last season?
5. Break in New Faces on Defense
In addition to the coaching turnover, Ole Miss has a handful of key players to replace from last season. Six starters are back, but the defense will miss edge rusher Sam Williams, linebackers Chance Campbell and Mark Robinson, safety Jake Springer and cornerback Deane Leonard, among others. Similar to the offense, help is on the way from the portal. Khari Coleman, Jared Ivey and J.J. Pegues bolster a line slated to return end Cedric Johnson and tackle K.D. Hill, with linebacker Troy Brown helping to ease the void left behind by Campbell and Robinson. In the secondary, look for Isheem Young and Ladarius Tennison to battle for snaps at safety or as an extra nickel defender. Considering all of the new faces and additions coming this summer from the incoming recruiting class and transfers, it’s unlikely Ole Miss will be able to get a good grasp on just how exactly its defense will shake out. However, the process of rebuilding a unit that was trending up in ’21 starts on March 22.
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