Matt Luke, beginning his third season as an SEC head coach, hired big names and experienced hands in the offseason to help him rebuild Ole Miss football. Former Pac-12 coaches Rich Rodriguez and Mike MacIntyre hope to help the Rebels turn things around.
Rodriguez spent the spring installing the run-based spread option he favored at West Virginia, Michigan and Arizona. He'll give the keys to quarterback Matt Corral, a redshirt freshman.
Luke saw big strides from Corral in the spring. "If he makes a mistake he's not losing his cool. He's ready to play the next play," Luke says. "He's communicating with receivers, talking to the offensive line and doing the things it takes to be a great quarterback."
MacIntyre believes that his 3-4 scheme can improve a defense that ranked No. 97 or lower in every major statistical category last year.
Previewing Ole Miss' Offense for 2019
All four scholarship quarterbacks are freshmen, although Corral is a redshirt freshman. At 6'1", 207 pounds, he showed touch and accuracy last year while benefiting from the new four-game rule for true freshmen to maintain a season of eligibility. Luke calls him a "willing runner" in a system that will call on the quarterback to run more than in the last two seasons.
The Rebels expect to have ability if not experience at receiver after the departure of last year's three starters — D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown and DaMarkus Lodge. So was tight end Dawson Knox.
Sophomore slot receiver Elijah Moore had 36 catches for 398 yards as a freshman and showed he could make tough catches in traffic. He'll have an expanded role in the run game. After playing behind the big three, Braylon Sanders will become more of a downfield target. He averaged 16.9 yards per catch last year and in limited opportunities showed big-play potential.
Running back Scottie Phillips has All-SEC potential. He narrowly missed 1,000 yards last year as a first-year junior college transfer and would have gotten there had an ankle injury against Texas A&M not kept him out of most of the last three games.
Ole Miss offensive players may need to be extra elusive early while a rebuilding offensive line — only two starters return — finds its way.
Previewing Ole Miss' Defense for 2019
Ole Miss defensive ends made the adjustment to standing as outside linebackers in the spring. Senior Qaadir Sheppard, who began his career at Syracuse, says the change suits him. He had 10 tackles for a loss last year.
Improvement against the run was the battle cry in 2018 and will be again after the Rebels allowed 221.8 rushing yards per game last year. "I like the 3-4 principle for a lot of reasons," MacIntyre says. "You're able to clog up the B gaps and make the ball bounce, and you're able to bring edge pressure. We've developed a 3-4 scheme to fit college football in the wide, spread game."
Junior college transfer Sam Williams is expected to make a quick impact as a pass rusher at outside linebacker. He’s 6'3", 258 and had 17.5 sacks at Northeast Mississippi Community College last year.
Junior linebacker Mohamed Sanogo led the Rebels with 112 tackles and takes over one of the inside spots. Junior college transfer Lakia Henry, a contender for the other inside spot, will have to be brought up to speed quickly. He did not arrive on campus in time for spring drills.
The outside backers will occasionally put a hand in the dirt and give the Rebels a five-man front.
More often than not, though, interior linemen Benito Jones and Josiah Coatney will have the strange sensation of having no one beside them at the line of scrimmage. Jones will play nose and Coatney end. Jones had nine tackles for a loss last year, and Coatney was third with 63 overall tackles.
Jaylon Jones' return to the secondary will be a big lift provided he makes a full recovery from the ACL tear he suffered in the season opener against Texas Tech last year.
Previewing Ole Miss' Specialists for 2019
Placekicker Luke Logan and punter Mac Brown are both returning starters. Logan made 22 field goals last year, tying for the second most in school history, but he missed two from under 30 yards and missed an extra point as well. Brown averaged 41.2 yards with a long of 65 on 48 punts. Jaylon Jones could bring a lift to the return game. He ranked third in the SEC with 25.0 yards per kick return in 2017 and had a 94-yard touchdown against Texas Tech before getting hurt last year.
There is ability on offense, although the Rebels are inexperienced at most positions. There's more experience on defense, but there are fewer proven playmakers on that side of the ball, and newcomers Williams and Henry will need to produce.
You don't go through NCAA sanctions without feeling the pain, and depth is an issue.
Luke has added quality coaching to his staff, and if the Rebels are going to reach bowl eligibility, Rodriguez and MacIntyre will have to make as big an impact as any of the players.
National Ranking: 62
(Top photo courtesy of Ole Miss Athletics)