For the first time in what seems like an eternity, the Rebels will take the field at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The team has undergone a facelift during the program’s undoubtedly chaotic offseason. Matt Luke has taken the reins as head coach. New play-callers on both sides of the ball have arrived. Though it could be meaningless to some, this season could be the most important in Ole Miss history.
The Rebels kickoff the 2017 campaign against tough Sun Belt opponent South Alabama on Saturday. After notching wins against Mississippi State and San Diego State, the Jaguars will look to take down Ole Miss and continue the trend. Coach Joey Jones has never had a problem getting his team to rise to the occasion against tougher competitors, so expect to see the best of South Alabama.
With the Rebels being heavily favored, focus should be on developing the new systems on offense and defense. New offensive coordinator Phil Longo is no stranger to explosive offenses. As the offensive coordinator at Sam Houston State University, he led the Bearkats’ most efficient FCS offense a season ago. Even after the departure of top targets Evan Engram, Quincy Adeboyejo and Damore’ea Stringfellow, the Rebels are loaded offensively. Longo can use a balanced attack with dual-threat quarterback Shea Patterson, big-bodied receivers D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown and running backs Jordan Wilkins and D’Vaughn Pennamon to get in the end zone. Look for him to establish the run game early to setup play action and deep-passing plays.
Shea Patterson is a great quarterback. The wide-receiver depth is apparent. We know. A group that’s less talked about and could end up being the most valuable position group on either side of the ball is the offensive line. The left side of the line features Greg Little, Javon Patterson and Sean Rawlings, all of whom are on preseason watch lists for their respective line positions. Patterson should not have any worries about his blindside. Rod Taylor and Alex Givens will compete at right tackle, though Taylor has been given the starting nod. Daronte Bouldin will be the only question mark as he steps in to fill the void of Jordan Sims. This group will be key to creating holes for Wilkins, Pennamon and Patterson to shred defenses on the ground.
On the opposite side of the ball, look for the Rebels to establish a tough mindset that seemed absent a year ago. Wesley McGriff has been tasked with reviving the Landshark defense fans have come to know and love. He brings a scheme that preaches simplicity. The Rebel defense played too aggressively a year ago, and that led to big mistakes. The biggest change he brings to the table is his no-nonsense approach to holding players accountable.
McGriff has had success with the New Orleans Saints and Auburn Tigers in the simple system, and he will have many tools to work with in Oxford.
Senior and Chucky Mullins Courage Award winner Marquis Haynes is one of the best pass rushers in the country. Move inside, and there is Breeland Speaks and Benito Jones, who is on track to play Saturday after a scary spinal injury in fall camp. The other defensive end will be a revolving door this weekend with redshirt freshman Victor Evans and true freshman Ryder Anderson both expected to take snaps. DeMarquis Gates will have to pick up the slack at linebacker with Detric Bing-Dukes serving a suspension, but he should do a fine job. The secondary will feature a plethora of young talent with Zedrick Woods, Jaylon Jones, Jalen Julius, Deontay Anderson and Myles Hartsfield, who are joined by freshman newcomers D.D. Bowie and Breon Dixon.
Overall, it looks like we should see plenty of Rebels in the end zone. With the high-flying offense alongside the return of the Landsharks, head coach Matt Luke wants to send the message that it’s his program and we’re back.
Saturday evening’s game will kick off at 6:30 p.m. and be televised on ESPNU. In a competitive opening week matchup that could be overlooked by Ole Miss fans, look for the Rebels to come out with a chip on their shoulder and win their first game back in front of the Rebel faithful.