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Three areas to watch as Ole Miss begins spring practice

The sense of newness will be difficult to ignore for Ole Miss as it hit the field for the  start of spring practice on Tuesday. Two new coordinators, soon-to-be three new assistant coaches and a slew of holes to fill on the offensive side of the football will make for a lot of growing pains during the 15 practices allotted to the Rebels leading up to the spring game.

“A lot of new faces in the coaching staff and on the field,” head coach Matt Luke said. “It is exciting to have a fresh start, installing a new offense and defense. The energy in the building has been good.”

Luke’s attention will be spread across a variety of areas, but what are three of the bigger questions facing this program heading into the spring.

  1. What to make a of new-look offensive line?

Ole Miss loses 127 combined starts on the offensive line and four primary contributors from last year’s team in Greg Little, Sean Rawlings, Jordan Sims and Javon Patterson. The right side of the line appears a little more stable than the left with Alex Givens and Ben Brown returning, but the offensive line will see a pretty significant overhaul.

The Rebels have enough bodies to run three offensive line groups in the spring, barring injury, but it is a thin position group at the moment. Reinforcements are coming. Seven signees will arrive on campus this summer in preparation for fall camp, but until then, the Rebels are left to mold what it has into the cupboard into potential contributors.

“It will be a challenge, but it will also be an opportunity to give reps to guy who really need it,” Luke said. “I think the right side is taken care of with (Alex) Givens and Ben (Brown). We have used some different combinations on the left side with Royce Newman at left tackle and Chandler Tuitt at guard. We have had Bryce Matthews at left tackle and Royce and guard. We want to get the best five lineman out there and will use these 15 practices to find that.”

This is perhaps the area of the football team that draws the most uneasiness from Luke. Retooling essentially the entire offensive line is no small task and it isn’t made any easier with a new quarterback and a slew of new skill players on the perimeter. It would be unrealistic to lean heavily, or hardly at all, on seven summer enrollees. Again, is some experience left on the offensive line, but not much. Brown was a primary starter at right guard a season ago and Givens is a seasoned veteran. Beyond that, game reps are scarce.

2. Likely candidates for the two outside linebackers Mike MacIntyre’s 3-4 scheme

The Ole Miss defense will look different in 2019 than it has the past two seasons, if nothing else. Luke hired MacIntyre in December, bringing with him a 3-4 scheme and a reputation of doing a lot with a little at previous stops in his career like Colorado and San Jose state.  MacIntyre doesn’t have the ideal personnel yet to run his system, but is going to have to make the best of it.

 Charles Wiley and Qaadir Sheppard have moved to outside backer from defensive end, and were the first two names off of Luke’s tongue as to who might fit well. Jonathan Hess, who was recruited as a linebacker but moved to defensive end, has the body frame and skillset to make the transition to the outside as well. Kevontae Ruggs saw significant playing time as a true freshman at linebacker and has also moved outside. 

“I think a lot of those guys will be able to have that length to play in space,” Luke said. “I think that really helps. And then on third down, we take the nose guard out and they can slide to defensive end to rush the passer.”

Sam Williams, a junior college transfer, is a newcomer that could see playing time quickly here, but Luke did not rule out moving Williams inside if he gains weight. 

OIe Miss has some options here and trying to find the right fit during the spring will be interesting to keep an eye on.

3. Wide receivers

Ole Miss undoubtedly lost the most firepower at wide receiver than any other position with Damarkus Lodge, A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf leaving the program for the NFL. The Rebels have had dynamic playmakers on the outside for the better part of the last seven years and will now have to turn to perhaps the most unproven group of any during that stretch. 

Braylon Sanders boasts the most experience and will anchor the group. Elijah Moore is an intriguing piece in the slot and Ole Miss is hoping a healthy Demarcus Gregory will provide a big, physical target on the outside.  Gregory tore his ACL his senior year of high school and redshirted his freshman season. 

“I think one of the unique things that you see in our receiver room is you have Donte Moncrief’s passing along the work ethic and it’s gone down the line all the way to A.J. (Brown) and D.K. (Metcalf),” Luke said. “Now, it’s time for a new crop of receivers to step up. I’m really excited. Elijah (Moore) made a bunch of plays for us last year so he’ll be back and same with Braylon Sanders. 

“Miles (Battle) has got to step up and we’re excited with what we’ve seen from Dontario (Drummond) since he’s been here. It’s on opportunity for a lot of young guys to step up.”

It is an impossible to ask this group to be as productive as the 2018 receiving corps. The proverbial shoes to fill are quite large and a couple of guys will be called into significant roles next fall.

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