Once considered a boy genius among coaches, Lane Kiffin has at various times led a storied NFL franchise plus two different historical major college programs. Now, having turned 45 on May 9, he’s back in the big chair at a Power 5 program for the first time in seven years, tasked with restoring relevance to the Ole Miss Rebels.
Ole Miss athletics director Keith Carter hopes he’s caught Kiffin at a more mature time in the coach’s career, perhaps in time for a rebirth similar to the one former Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron, a good friend of Kiffin’s, has experienced at LSU.
Kiffin hired Michigan up-and-comer Chris Partridge and veteran D.J. Durkin as co-defensive coordinators and Jeff Lebby, with stops at Baylor and UCF, as offensive coordinator.
“If you’re going to make a change, you’ve got to get the next one right,” Carter says. “There’s a lot of pressure to do that. I couldn’t be happier with our choice, and I think we got it right.”
Kiffin will try to create more offensive balance with a team that was No. 2 in the SEC and No. 9 in the nation in rushing offense at 251.3 yards per game.
That wasn’t enough to keep the Rebels from going 4–8 or keep former coach Matt Luke — now the offensive line coach at Georgia — from temporary unemployment.
Previewing Ole Miss' Offense for 2020
Starting quarterback John Rhys Plumlee is back after leading the SEC in rushing yards per game at 113.7. If Plumlee is going to keep the job in a scheme that will be more balanced, he’ll need to improve in the pass game where he completed just 52.7 percent after becoming QB1 four games into his freshman season. Sophomore Matt Corral will be the primary threat among three others in the mix.
The Rebels return dynamic talent at running back in home-run threat Jerrion Ealy, who accounted for 894 yards and eight touchdowns rushing and receiving.
Three-and-a-half starters return on the offensive line after talented sophomore Nick Broeker, who coaches believe has all-conference potential, split game reps with a senior at left tackle last year. Right guard Ben Brown, a redshirt junior, is in his third starting season. Senior Royce Newman will move to right tackle to replace the lone departure, Alex Givens.
Wide receiver looks to be a position with untapped potential. There were four highly regarded freshmen in the 2019 signing class who were mostly lost in a run-heavy offense. In addition, the hiring of Kiffin convinced two older players to remain instead of transfer. Junior slot receiver Elijah Moore is back after netting 67 catches and six touchdown passes last year. Temple grad transfer Kenny Yeboah is the favorite at tight end.
Previewing Ole Miss' Defense for 2020
Kiffin and staff will only say “multiple” when asked about a scheme.
The Rebels are thin at the interior defensive line spots and whiffed on several prospects in the late signing period. Several players listed as ends on the spring roster could end up helping out inside. Since the Rebels ran a 3-4 last year, there are outside linebackers to help at the end spots should Kiffin choose a four-man front.
Sam Williams, a first-year juco transfer at OLB, had six sacks and 9.5 tackles for a loss. Senior Ryder Anderson was playing the best football of his career as a disruptive edge rusher when a knee injury cut short his season. Throughout his career, he’s added bulk to his 6'6" frame, and coaches hope he’ll pick up where he left off. Freshman end Demon Clowney, the cousin of NFL defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, could be a factor.
Middle linebacker is the most experienced group as Ole Miss returns Lakia Henry and Jacquez Jones, its top two tacklers.
In addition, MoMo Sanogo, who gained some preseason All-SEC mention a year ago, returns from a broken ankle.
The surprise transfer of sophomore Deantre Prince creates a depth problem at cornerback, and the Rebels need young players to emerge at the safety spots.
Previewing Ole Miss' Specialists for 2020
Senior placekicker Luke Logan was inconsistent last year, hitting just 11-of-19 field goals. He’ll be pushed by a handful of walk-ons in camp. Senior punter Mac Brown returns after averaging 44.3 yards on 57 punts.
Ealy brings big-play potential to the kick return game. He averaged 24.4 yards on 13 attempts, one of them a 94-yard touchdown.
The cancellation of spring practice was an issue everywhere, but even more difficult for new coaches who hoped to begin quarterback competitions.
Kiffin hopes to name a quarterback who can lead an adaptable, explosive offense to carry a defense that will have to find its way. After his firing at USC, Kiffin was able to build such offenses as the coordinator at Alabama and head coach at Florida Atlantic.
Whoever takes the snaps will have to survive a brutal early schedule with Baylor, Auburn, LSU and Alabama in four of the first five games. Will Kiffin gamble that Plumlee, a dynamic athlete, can show great improvement as a passer, or will he go a different route and use Plumlee in other ways? It’s a decision that will shape Kiffin’s debut season.
National Ranking: 38
(Top photo by AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)