Football is back in Mississippi as Ole Miss began spring practice yesterday.
After playing under a bowl ban in 2017, Ole Miss finished 6-6 and went into the offseason with some momentum thanks in large part a victory in the annual Egg Bowl. Since the season ended, Ole Miss has had more off-the-field drama to deal with as the NCAA issued their final ruling which included yet another bowl ban for the 2018 season.
The university has opted to “vigorously” appeal that decision, and once again, all they can do is wait for a decision to be handed down. In the midst of the NCAA drama, Ole Miss lost several players to transfer including QB Shea Patterson. Jordan Ta’amu finished the season for the Rebels and played well after Patterson’s injury, and he enters spring practice with a full offseason to take charge and command the Rebel offense. Ta’amu will undoubtedly be pushed by high-profile recruit Matt Corral, who flipped his commitment from Florida to Ole Miss late in the recruiting process.
Last year, Matt Luke took the field as the interim coach following the resignation of Hugh Freeze. This year, he stands in front of his team as their official head coach, and it will be interesting to see what kind of unique spin Luke is able to put on the program moving forward. When asked about what kind of impact he wants to have, he stressed that it’s all about building the right culture in the building.
“When I talk about culture, that’s what I am talking about. From the way we are dressed to showing up on time to the way the locker room looks, it’s the little things,” Luke said. “I think that are very important; the disciple of a team. I just want to build on the culture. We want to take where we are and continue to build on that.”
In his first camp as the true head coach of the Rebels, Luke also emphasized that his focus is on “players not plays” as they attempt to build that culture early on.
On-the-field, the Rebels are dealing with injuries at some key positions. On offense, TE Dawson Knox, RB D’vaughn Pennamon and OL Eli Johnson, are out for spring. Other players who be limited include JUCO transfer RB Scottie Phillips, OL Alex Givens, OL Sean Rawlings, and WR Demarcus Gregory. Gregory is a 4-star recruit, who tore his ACL before his senior season in high school.
On defense, DT Austrian Robinson, DT Benito Jones and DE Qaadir Sheppard are all out for the spring, and DBs Ken Webster and C.J. Miller will both be limited. While injuries are never a good thing for a program to deal with, Luke says it shouldn’t affect them in the fall and this gives young players a chance to step up.
“I think they’ll all be fine for the fall, Luke explained. “It’s just the situation right now that they’re not going to be out there, and they are some leaders. That’s why we need some young guys to step up so that we learn what they can do. So it’s a blessing some of these young guys get to play, and maybe some new leaders can emerge and create more and more depth. We feel pretty good about Benito Jones playing, but can Ross Donelly emerge as a leader? Can other people step up? Guys like Ryder Anderson and Charles Wiley, can those guys step up and get 15 days better? That’s a huge, huge thing for us.”
The Rebels’ struggles on the defensive side of the ball were well documented last season, and some key signees in their 2018 recruiting class could have an immediate impact. DT Hal Northern, a JUCO transfer, could step in as one of those young guys especially during the injury-filled spring for Ole Miss. DT Noah Jefferson started out as a 4-star recruit at USC and after year in junior college, he could be a breakout find for Ole Miss as the season approaches. Perhaps the biggest question mark for Ole Miss is the linebacker position. Ole Miss loses top tackler Demarcus Gates and Marquis Haynes, but Luke is confident in the players that will attempt to fill the void.
“Detric Bing-Dukes and Willie Hibbler will start there, but really Mohamed Sanogo, Josh Clarke and Zikerrion Baker, we are really wanting to see what they can do,” Luke explained. “It is a huge spring for them. Obviously we have young guys coming from high school, but they are not here right now, so you really want to see what these young guys can do. I am cautiously optimistic about those guys because they have redshirted and waited their turn. They’ve gotten bigger and stronger and learned the system.”
On the other side of the ball, Ole Miss is well set at the wide receiver position with the return of A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and Demarcus Lodge, but someone will need to step up the fill the shoes of Van Jefferson who transferred to Florida. The Rebels were able to bring in 4-star WR Elijah Moore, Gregory and a few other playmakers in their 2018 class. Sophomore Braylon Sanders could also play a role in OC Phil Longo’s offense.
The Rebels don’t run the ball often, but when they did last year, Jordan Wilkins was able to make the most of his carries, as he became Ole Miss’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2009. Wilkins is at the NFL combine, so he’s not in camp for Ole Miss, and it presents another question mark for the Rebel offense. Pennamon is coming off a serious knee injury and Eric Sweeney has battled injury his entire Ole Miss career, but both have shown the ability to contribute when healthy. Also in the backfield will be newcomers Isaiah Woullard, and while Armani Linton isn’t new to the team, he will make the shift from safety to RB.
Spring football is a chance for players to get acclimated with their teammates, learn the basics, and get their feet wet before the summer rolls around. Luke mentioned that by the end of the 15 day practice period, he hopes to see team unity and leaders begin to emerge.
“I want us to be a team,” Luke said. “I don’t want to see offense or defense; I want to see a team. I want to see who the leaders are going to be. I know who some leaders are, but I want to see some more leaders emerge. I want to see some guys take control and hold others accountable.”
Spring practice will conclude with the annual Grove Bowl on April 7th.