Even with crippling sanctions, Matt Luke and the Rebels look to compete in loaded SEC West
While Ole Miss’ 2017 football season offered its highlights — an Egg Bowl win and the emergence of quarterback Jordan Ta’amu — it also was one of reckoning, as the NCAA handed down crippling sanctions last December. In the end, Ole Miss was hit with a bowl ban that concludes after the 2018 season, scholarship reductions, in addition to other penalties.
The hits, however, didn’t stop in December.
Because of the NCAA’s stiff penalties, Ole Miss allowed for certain players to transfer. Star quarterback Shea Patterson was among those who opted to leave Oxford, as did former four-star wide receiver Van Jefferson. In all, six players departed from the school.
The commencement of spring practice on Tuesday signals a fresh start to an embattled program as the Rebels begin preparation for the 2018 season, which kicks off on Sept. 1 in Houston against Texas Tech.
5 Storylines to Watch During Ole Miss’ Spring Practice
1. The progression of Jordan Ta’amu
Last year, Ole Miss dealt with two blows regarding former quarterback Shea Patterson. First, Patterson suffered a season-ending knee injury against LSU in October. A month later, he announced he was leaving Ole Miss for Michigan following the NCAA’s sanctions.
Ta’amu’s play in 2017 gives Rebel fans reason for optimism in 2018. Ta’amu, a senior, received his first start of the season against Arkansas and guided Ole Miss to a 5-2 record in the games he started. He ended the year with 1,682 passing yards and 11 touchdowns against four interceptions. He also added 165 rushing yards and four scores. Ta’amu’s contributions to the passing game helped Ole Miss finish the year ranked No. 2 in the SEC behind Missouri with 3, 941 passing yards.
2. A.J. Brown
In what many expect to be his final year in Oxford, Brown returns as not only Ole Miss’ top receiver but also as one of the best in FBS. Last year, Brown led the SEC with 1,252 receiving yards (an Ole Miss single-season record) and 11 touchdowns, including a 133-yard (with a TD) performance in the Egg Bowl.
Whether it was Patterson or Ta’amu throwing him the ball, it didn’t seem to matter, as Brown headlined a Rebels passing attack that finished 11th in the nation. Brown has a chance to rewrite the school record book, especially if he puts together a season similar to last year.
3. Ole Miss’ lackluster defense
The Rebels finished last season 115th out of 129 FBS teams in total defense, as they gave up nearly 460 yards per game. While Ole Miss’ offense boasts the pieces to compete with the SEC’s top-ranked programs, the defense has plenty of room for improvement.
The Rebels fared OK against the pass, limiting teams to 214.2 yards per game through the air. But stopping anyone from running on them was a different story. Ole Miss gave up nearly 3,000 rushing yards (245.3 per game) and 29 touchdowns in 2017. Opponents averaged 5.4 yards per carry against the Rebels. To put it another way, only six FBS teams gave up more damage on the ground.
Defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff enters his second year in the position, and the hope is he can recreate the defensive magic he brought to Auburn as co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach in 2016 when the Tigers played in the Sugar Bowl and were seventh in the country in points allowed per game (17.1).
4. Four-star QB Matt Corral’s role
Corral shook up the recruiting world when he flipped from Florida to Ole Miss in mid-December. Although Ta’amu has likely done enough to earn a firm grip on the starting quarterback job, Corral’s arrival surely makes things interesting.
Corral, an Elite 11 product and U.S. Army All-American, comes to Oxford via California football powerhouse Long Beach Polytechnic High School, where he threw for 10,178 yards, 103 touchdowns and 22 interceptions during his four-year career. He also rushed for 940 yards and 20 touchdowns.
5. "New" head coach Matt Luke
Ole Miss officially named Luke permanent head coach a few days after its 31-28 Egg Bowl victory over Mississippi State. Now that the NCAA’s sanctions have been handed down, Luke will attempt to guide Ole Miss back to respectability and stay competitive in the SEC.
Given the set of circumstances, Luke will likely receive a longer leash, but he still must produce enough to keep the university’s brass and fan base confident that he’s the right man for the job.
As an interim head coach — a title he held since July 2017— Luke finished 6-6 overall and 3-5 in SEC play. The Rebels earned conference wins against Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Mississippi State, and went finished with four victories in their final five games.
Luke is working with fewer scholarships and no bowl game in 2018, but should he keep Ole Miss afloat during the turbulent times, it could not only win him favor with the Ole Miss faithful, but also with FBS athletic directors who will be looking for a head coach in the near future.
— 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.