Going into the first week of the college football season, the University of Mississippi football team has emerged from an offseason of controversy and is finally ready to deliver where it matters most: on the football field.
The Rebels take on South Alabama on Saturday, Sept. 2, where they look to take care of business and avoid an upset against a team known to challenge SEC opponents. With a new head coach, new offensive coordinator and new defensive coordinator, the Rebels look completely different on the sidelines. But the coaches are eager to get on the field and start putting wins on the board.
“I’m just excited to get this thing cranked off,” head coach Matt Luke said. “This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and I’m just excited, excited about the opportunity, excited about walking through the Grove. I’m excited about locking the Vaught, excited about representing my university and trying to put a team on the field that everybody is proud of.”
The mental toughness of this Rebel team will play an important role in not only the opening game but also throughout the season. Emotions will be running high all season after the Hugh Freeze scandal and amidst the NCAA investigation. As a result, the Rebels will have all their full-time coaches on the field for the first game to help players handle the adrenaline.
“Well, I promised the defensive guys, I told them, I said I know you’re not going to believe this, but during the game I’m not going to yell at you, scream at you,” defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said. “I’m going to have a lot of fun.”
Offensive coordinator Phil Longo, who moved over from Sam Houston State last season, echoed McGriff’s sentiments.
“I try to live life on the positive side,” he said. “I like to think we’ve prepared well. I think the guys have worked hard. I think our guys are intelligent, and I think they’re ready to play on Saturday.”
While there is no question when it comes to the enthusiasm for opening weekend, the return of high-level contributors like defensive linemen Breeland Speaks and Marquis Haynes is slated to make a huge difference when it comes to the confidence of both the players and the program.
“Marquis Haynes comes to my mind,” coach Luke said when asked who the leaders in the locker room are. “I think Breeland Speaks is also a leader, and those two will play a big role this fall.”
These two will be key for younger, more inexperienced players to lean on before, during and after the game.
On the offensive side of the ball, there is no doubt what you’re getting. After quarterback Shea Patterson spent last season redshirting, he was thrown into the fire to fill in for an injured Chad Kelly. According to Longo, the opportunity to spend a whole offseason working with Patterson and the offense is going to make a tremendous difference.
“(Shea and I) can communicate without having to verbalize anything, and I think right now we have a good pretty good feel for each other,” Longo said. “I see that as an asset, not any kind of problem.”
When push comes to shove, the college football world knows what a different year it’s going to be in Oxford. The players have a lot on their shoulders, but new offensive and defensive coordinators Phil Longo and Wesley McGriff have been working alongside new head coach Matt Luke to create a special energy on and off the field that should be fun to watch come Saturday against South Alabama.