Kickoff has arrived.
The Ole Miss Rebels will take on the Texas Tech Red Raiders on Saturday in a neutral-site game at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. This clash of two similarly high-powered and high-scoring offensive philosophies will likely yield a shootout.
Rebel cornerback Myles Hartsfield said he’s been looking forward to this matchup because he feels that going head-to-head against the Ole Miss offense in practice has prepared the team for the challenges that the Red Raiders will present.
“You do not get better than our receivers,” Hartsfield said. “The tempo we face in practice is something that Texas Tech does well.”
He does, however, notice a certain difference in the execution of the air raid offense that the two teams employ.
“They use screen (passes) more,” Hartsfield said. “They are not a big running team. They use the screen game as their running attack. They get the five or so yards that way, because they want to throw the ball.”
Red Raider head coach Kliff Kingsbury has enjoyed potent offensive success in his tenure at Texas Tech, and quarterback play has been an important part of that formula. From the 2013 Red Raider squad alone, Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb have all been drafted into the NFL. This is the first season in which Kingsbury did not have a clear answer for who will be his starting quarterback.
Experienced junior college transfer McLane Carter has been tapped to lead Kingsbury’s air raid attack. Carter, who has one start in the Big 12, is a mobile, left-handed quarterback who protects the ball and gets it into the hands of his playmakers.
The Landshark defense will debut many new faces Saturday. Freshman Kevontae’ Ruggs and sophomore Mohamed “Momo” Sanogo will both make their first career starts next to each other at linebacker. Ruggs, at outside linebacker, has a taller, lanky frame that allows him to use his athleticism and length to rush the passer, while Sanogo is a prototypical inside linebacker who will be in charge of running the defense.
These two young players’ development will be important as defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff looks to replace Marquis Haynes, Breeland Speaks and DeMarquis Gates from last season.“We’ll play some man; we’ll play some zone,” McGriff said. “We’ll mix it up, because we want to get our hands and eyes on the football.”
Ole Miss will not be shy to run the ball in Houston. The talk throughout camp has been about how head coach Matt Luke and offensive coordinator Phil Longo want to create a balanced offense. Luke has mentioned he wants to use a committee of running backs with JUCO transfer Scottie Phillips and Eric Swinney at the head of the pecking order. However, expect for Phillips to get a heavy dose of action, with Swinney set to miss three weeks after contracting mono. This elevates freshmen Isaiah Woullard’s and Tylan Knight’s importance in these early season games.
Texas Tech is not known to have a formidable defense, but it excelled in one key area last season: turnovers. The Red Raiders forced 29 turnovers in 2017, and with most of their defense returning, look for defensive coordinator David Gibbs to seek opportunities to get the ball back to his offense.
Gibbs’ top player should be familiar to fans of the Netflix documentary “Last Chance U.” Linebacker Dakota Allen transferred to East Mississippi Community College after being dismissed from the Texas Tech program in 2016. Allen then returned to the Red Raider program, following a successful year under EMCC head coach Buddy Stephens. Allen will be one of the top linebacker prospects in the 2019 NFL Draft, so expect him to flash on the field.
With Jordan Ta’amu at quarterback, the depth of the “Nasty Wide Outs,” tight ends Dawson Knox and Octavious Cooley and an experienced O-line, Longo has one of the deepest tool sheds of any play-caller in the country.
Excepting Swinney, the Ole Miss offense is healthy and will have all of its options available for the season opener. The offense is built for Ta’amu to make quick decisions and exploit mismatches on the field. Look for Longo to use Phillips a ton to open downfield passing opportunities.
Season openers present a blank slate for every team. The Rebels now have a chance to remove an elongated cloud that has shrouded the program in the past few years. Luke understands a good team performance against a top program like Texas Tech should not be treated any different than any other game.
“(We) get 12 opportunities,” Luke said. “(The team) works all year for 12 opportunities, and this is one of those 12. They are all big.”