By Peyton Taylor
OXFORD- The cloud is no longer a shadow over Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The accusations have been dealt with. The hammer has been brought down upon Oxford, Mississippi’s heart and soul. The punishment and sanctions have been fulfilled. For the first time since 2015, the University of Mississippi and its football program once again have a feeling of normalcy surrounding the program.
Opposite of the positive spectrum, the expectations of Rebel fans are forever increased, thanks to the overwhelming success and heights that predecessor Hugh Freeze reached in his five years at the helm. Now, head coach Matt Luke will be expected to turn around Ole Miss and give fans optimism that a return to former glory will be swift and joyous. However, two coordinator changes, massive offensive losses, and a tough schedule will make the Rebels’ quest for a bowl birth in their first eligible year since 2016 a uphill battle.
For the offense, the biggest losses obviously come from the receiving corps. With draft picks A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, DaMarkus Lodge, and Dawson Knox, Ole Miss and new offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez will need to replace over 75 percent of the production from the wide outs and tight end positions. Along with those departures, last year’s starter Jordan Ta’amu graduated as well, now fighting for a spot on a NFL roster.
Not all is lost for the Rebels, however. Braylon Sanders and Elijah Moore return to the offense after great seasons last year. Also, former 1,000-yard rusher Scottie Phillips is back for his senior year, which will aid Rodriguez’s zone read offensive philosophy. Rodriguez’s offenses usually average a 60-40 run-pass ratio, so returning Phillips and adding five-star recruit Jerrion Ealy will surely have this offense ready to aid former four-star QB Matt Corral in lighting up the scoreboard.
When it comes to the defense, a good mindset if you are a Rebel fan is “it can not get much worse.” After a season in which Ole Miss allowed 482 total yards, including 220 yards on the ground, and allowed quarter packs to complete 64 percent of their passes, this unit undoubtedly must see improvement under first-year coordinator Mike Macintyre.
The main bright side for this defense is that returns many of starters from last season, such as Benito Jones, Charles Wiley, Josiah Coatney, and Myles Hartsfield. The unit also adds some new talent, including NJCAA Defensive Player of the Year and former NEMCC standout Sam Williams, who will start for the Rebels at outside linebacker. After last season where former coordinator Wesley McGriff seemed to have players not knowing assignments, reads, or positioning on the field, this defense can surely be expected to take a step forwards.
Overall, this team will be tested all season, especially against a tough non-conference schedule. For most, along with myself, this season will be seen as a make or break season for Matt Luke’s tenure at Ole Miss.