Ryann Guy, sports editor at South Alabama’s The Vanguard, joins Grayson Weir to discuss the first Ole Miss football game of 2017.
RG: After a rough offseason and much scrutiny of previous head coach Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss’ football program is in a transition period. How has and will this affect the program, both in the locker room and on the field?
GW: Honestly, it has affected the program in a positive manner. Of course the news over the summer came as a bit of a shock, but when push comes to shove, the locker room may be more unified than ever. Under head coach Matt Luke, who was given the title after the Hugh Freeze debacle, there’s an even greater sense of family. Luke’s father played here, his brother played here and he played here – he’s a Rebel. The players are 100 percent behind him and our new coordinators on both sides of the ball and are ready to get out, silence the haters and take some names on the field.
RG: What is Ole Miss doing to prepare to play against South Alabama, a team with so much depth?
GW: Condition, condition, condition. Not only has it been a key when it comes to facing a deep team in the Jaguars but also across the board. Our offense, under the direction of new offensive coordinator Phil Longo, who led the FCS in total offense with Sam Houston State in 2016, looks to play fast. Our defense looks to fly off the line and get 11 hats to the ball. Conditioning has been a key point of emphasis for 2017 and will carry over into preparation for Saturday.
RG: Head coach Matt Luke has mentioned switching multiple players throughout the game to see which man plays his position the best. Is this something that should have been worked out before game day?
GW: No. Absolutely not. It’s a rare occurrence that every position battle has been settled come week one, and having multiple guys who can compete for a spot is a good problem to have. I’m all for competition and position fluidity; it brings out an even greater drive to step up and be the guy.
RG: After Dawson Knox’s camp injury and announcement of his absence from this game, what has Ole Miss done to fill his spot at tight end? Will it be able to keep up with the level of talent Dawson Knox has been promised to bring to Ole Miss?
GW: Interestingly enough, in Knox’s potential absence (no timeline has been given on his return, for all we know he could play this weekend), a former quarterback is projected to be the next man up. Listed as “athlete” on the roster, former four-star quarterback Jason Pellerin, who filled in briefly after Chad Kelly went down last fall, has been taking reps at a tight end position that plays more as a halfback. At 6-foot-4, 237 pounds, he’s a big presence that can really move, can catch passes and might just open up the offense for some crazy formations. Knox being out is a big weapon to lose, but so far, I’ve only heard great things about Pellerin’s transition. We’ll see whether he can hold his own on Saturday.
RG: What is going to be the difference for Ole Miss to come out with a win?
GW: Defense. Under the direction of new fireplug coordinator Wesley McGriff, the Rebel faithful is hoping for a return to the days of the Landshark defense. The offense, whether it starts hot or not, will eventually find its groove. If the defense can step up, create turnovers and force the Jaguars to punt, Ole Miss should walk off the field 1-0.
RG: Is Ole Miss expecting this to be an easy win or is it prepared to get a run for its money? SB Nation wrote an article for upset picks during week one of college football and South Alabama was listed No. 1 as “totally plausible.” What are your thoughts on that?
GW: There’s no doubt South Alabama is a program on the rise. And everyone here in Oxford saw how silly the Jaguars made Mississippi State look in week one of 2016 – trust me. It is totally plausible. But if the 53 men ON the field for Ole Miss can put aside the clamor OFF the field, hustle out of the tunnel fired up and play their game, the coaching staff believes they can surprise some people. If the Rebels come out flat, turn the ball over and let South Alabama hang in the game late, it could get dicey.
GW: Knocking off Mississippi State in last year’s season opener, the key was a lot of big plays, with Dallas Davis as the primary catalyst. With Davis out and Cole Garvin getting the nod for the first time as the true starter, how does the offense look in comparison to just a year ago? What does Garvin give the Jaguars that Davis cannot?
RG: Coming out of its longest camp in nine years, South Alabama has put in the work and is more ready now than ever before for this game at Ole Miss. Garvin has undoubtedly had less experience than Dallas Davis; however, while Garvin did get a chance to play in the win against San Diego State, he proved to everyone he can handle the pressure of being a D1 quarterback and how he can play alongside a challenging team. Garvin went out and completed 16 of 21 passes for 242 yards and three touchdowns. He earned SBC Offensive Player of the Week when he completed 16 of 21 passes for 242 yards and three scores in his collegiate debut while helping the Jags defeat No. 19 San Diego State. He had a 2-1 record in starts after leading USA past Presbyterian as well, marking the first time multiple Jaguar quarterbacks earned two or more wins as a starter in the same year since 2010. One the field, Garvin brings a “gunslinger” mentality and is able to extend plays. It really is not about what Garvin can give the Jaguars that Davis cannot. It is about how Garvin utilizes his talent when given the opportunity.
GW: The secondary is a question mark coming in to 2017 for the Jaguars. How do you expect the defensive backs to fair lining up against new offensive coordinator Phil Longo (who led the FCS in total offense last season) and Shea Patterson at the helm?
RG: For the secondary, for Phil Longo to call plays with Shea Patterson is a huge challenge for USA. Being that USA is young and inexperienced at cornerback with Bobby Flott stepping up after the loss of Jalen Thompson, it will need to rely on leadership and a lot of football experience from Jeremy Reeves, T’Qwan Robinson and Malcolm Buggs, the safety positions.
GW: All the talk has been surrounding the quarterback race in Mobile, but tell me about a player who might come out and make a name for himself:
RG: Offensive Player: Sam Harris – WR
As a sophomore, he started three games and recorded four interceptions for a total of 41 yards. He earned a scholarship in the spring and is starting at receiver and doubles as punt returner.
Defensive Player: Riley Cole – LB
Cole played in three of the first games in 2016 as a freshman before being taken out by a season-ending injury. In his first game against Mississippi, he was credited with two assists. Against Georgia Southern, he recorded a pair of unassisted tackles.
GW: In his first season, Kane Wommack ramped up his defense and showed the biggest improvement in the nation in points allowed per game. With most of the 11 from 2016 returning, what’s to be expected of the Jaguar unit, particularly upfront?
RG: With the resurgence of defensive lineman Jimmie Gipson III and Tre Alford returning from injury, the defensive front has more depth than it has begun a season with in recent years. This will be a huge help in stopping the run game against Ole Miss. Wommack is the son of the Rebels’ previous defensive coordinator. Our defensive front will be able to substitute periodically and get a pass rush on a very talented Rebel QB Shea Patterson.
GW: For South Alabama to win, what needs to happen? Prediction?
RG: For South to win, we need to keep our momentum and intensity throughout the entire game. It is no secret USA has previously upset large programs, and we have to stay humble about that. The Rebels’ defense is coming off a difficult year, and if USA capitalizes on that, we will give the Rebels a good battle.
GW: Does South Alabama travel well? Should we expect to see y’all in the Grove on Saturday?
RG: You better count on it.