As the Rebels step into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium this weekend to open their 2017 campaign, Matt Luke will officially begin his tenure at the helm of Ole Miss. Luke, promoted from offensive line coordinator over the summer, is no stranger to Saturday afternoons in the Vaught. The former Rebel lineman (1995-1998) has been on staff in Oxford since 2012.
After former head coach Hugh Freeze’s recruiting controversies led to his eventual exit over the summer, Luke seized the opportunity of a lifetime.
“This is my dream job,” Luke said. “I don’t know about any other job in the country at Alabama, LSU or wherever, but I do know that at this school and this time, I’m the right guy to do this.”
Luke certainly has an opportunity to make history in 2017 but fans should not expect many surprises Saturday. Now more than ever, the Rebels need consistency. And Luke is prepared to offer an olive branch to players caught in a sea of distractions.
“I don’t think they’ll be too different,” Luke said, referencing comparisons to former Ole Miss football teams. “But we’ve been talking about mental toughness and playing together, and I want to put a product on the field that all the Ole Miss fans will be proud of.”
Entering his first season in control of a program, Luke has a unique opportunity to leave his mark on Rebel football. He has taken that chance and ran with it; coaching at a school plagued by adversity, he preaches humility and toughness at every turn.
“I want to play together as a team, and I want our players not to feel entitled,” Luke said. “I want them to feel like they have to earn everything and just have a blue-collar mentality.”
After getting hammered by self-imposed recruiting restrictions, Ole Miss promises to play a mix of talented upperclassmen and largely untested freshmen. In preparation for the 2017 season, the Rebels signed the 31st best recruiting class in the nation – a strict departure from Freeze’s consistently top-10 classes. But that doesn’t mean Luke won’t find diamonds in the rough.
“We’ve had several freshmen step up this summer,” Luke said. “On offense, Braylon Sanders as a receiver has made some really good strides. Ben Brown, offensive line, has done a really good job.”
Sanders and Brown, both three-star recruits out of high school, both have their work cut out for them this fall. Brown, the seventh member of his family to sign with the Rebels, will need to compete with established linemen Sean Rawlings and Greg Little.
At wide receiver, Sanders may have an even tougher path to the starting lineup. The Rebels have talent and depth at the receiver spot, and Sanders must continue impressing throughout the fall if he is to earn field time. Still, Luke appears to have faith in the rookie receiver, a promising endorsement for any freshman.
One of the talented receivers keeping Sanders off the field is D.K. Metcalf, son of former Ole Miss All-American and NFL offensive linemen Terrence Metcalf. After scoring touchdowns in losses to Florida State and Alabama last year, the consensus four-star receiver suffered a season-ending foot injury against Wofford. Now, back and hungry for action, Metcalf’s physical assets and bond with quarterback and fellow sophomore Shea Patterson could pay dividends for Luke’s offense.
“D.K. had a great start to last year as a true freshman. He’s been throwing all summer with Shea, and he’s developed a great rapport,” Luke said. “He’s got size and speed; I think he’s a huge asset.”
Patterson, just the sixth true freshman to start for Ole Miss in school history, enters his sophomore season with plenty of top-flight experience. After quarterback Chad Kelly went down with a knee injury against Georgia Southern, Patterson’s redshirt was pulled and the torch was passed. His debut as a starter came in front of more than 100,000 Texas A&M fans in College Station, Texas – not an easy task. Patterson never missed a beat, leading the Rebels to a 29-28 victory.
With significant weight on their shoulders, the two can expect plenty of attention from their SEC opponents throughout the season. But Luke, just as any Football Bowl Subdivision coach would, wants his team to remain goal-driven and focus on the game at hand. He wants the Rebels to control what they can and minimize mistakes.
“I think our biggest goal is to play hard-nosed, tough, physical football one game at a time,” Luke said.
The Rebels kick off against South Alabama 6:30 p.m. Saturday.