The Ole Miss football season inched closer to opening day on Monday with the team’s first weekly press conference of the year.
Head coach Matt Luke and his assistants took to the podium to answer questions about the Rebels’ upcoming opponent Texas Tech and discussed what to expect from the Red Raiders.
“I’m excited about game week,” Luke said. “I think it will be a really, really tough opener. I think we’ll learn a lot about our team right off the bat.”
The Rebels allowed 200 rushing yards per game last season and struggled to stop most offenses they faced. Though the Rebels bring an experienced secondary into 2018, the linebacker corps is a different story, featuring two young, albeit promising, underclassmen: Kevontae’ Ruggs and Mohamed “Momo” Sanogo.
“I’m actually excited,” defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said. “I’m excited to see these two linebackers that we’re going to start off with. I’m excited to see them get the defense lined up — excited to see them play fast and go out and make some plays.”
Ruggs and Sanogo are anchored at linebacker by the experienced Willie Hibbler. Although there were questions coming into camp as to what the linebacker position would look like, Luke said he is impressed with the energy the unit has brought to practice.
“I think you’re looking for that energy and that toughness in guys that will fly around and hit you, and that’s what Momo and Ruggs have given us,” Luke said. “I think you’ll have Willie Hibbler, who knows what to do … he is improving because of competition. I’ve been very impressed with those guys flying around and bringing that energy.”
This Ole Miss defense will face a Texas Tech offense that could look very different than it did a season ago. The Red Raiders accumulated over 4,000 passing yards last season but graduated quarterback Nic Shimonek and numerous receivers from last year’s team. Knowing the Rebels’ difficulty in stopping the run during the 2016 and 2017 seasons, Texas Tech may run the ball a decent bit on Saturday — a possibility that the Rebels’ coaching staff has prepared for.
“I think any team, whether they’re known for run or pass, (is) going to try to run the ball early and establish the run,” Luke said. “I think any team is going to do that, especially when you’re trying to attack a weakness. We’re going to have to prove that we can stop the run.”
Offensively, the Rebels will face a Red Raider defense that led the Big 12 in forced turnovers last season (29) and returns 10 starters. The 2018 Ole Miss offense will try to replace running back Jordan Wilkins, who rushed for over 1,000 yards last season. On Saturday, Ole Miss will likely feed junior college transfer Scottie Phillips the majority of first team reps.
“Scottie will start the game and go, but I think you’re always having to keep guys fresh,” Luke said. “Scottie will start the game, and he will get the majority of the carries. But you’ll see other backs throughout the game, based on situations and where those guys are best at.”
The Ole Miss passing game returns one of the deepest receiving units in the country along with quarterback Jordan Ta’amu, who took over in 2017 after the season-ending injury to Shea Patterson. Ta’amu threw for 1,682 yards and 11 touchdowns to names like A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge, all of whom are drawing hype leading up to the 2019 NFL Draft.