2018 was a tough year to be a football fan in Oxford, Mississippi. The Ole Miss Rebels have very much been a program suffering turbulent times. For 2019, they hope to leave behind the murky Hugh Freeze scandal and a history of NCAA violations. After being banned from bowl games in the last two years, can they return to the post season?
In Matt Luke’s third year as head coach, they will need to be a lot better than last season. Defensively, the Rebels were poor in 2018. Averaging 36.2 points against them per game, they ranked 114 out of 130 programs. They only held the opposition under 30 points in three games. Alabama (62), LSU (45), and South Carolina (48) all put up over 40 points against them.
Despite the efforts of a Top 30 offence, the defence contributed to a 5-7 record in 2018. More troubling for the Rebels, was a 1-7 record in conference. For a program that is used to challenging for championships, it’s an unacceptable situation to be in. Their only conference win came against Arkansas who finished rock bottom of the SEC West. The 33 points put up by the Razorbacks were their second highest of their season.
Early season wins over Texas Tech, Southern Illinois, Kent State and Louisiana-Monroe saw Ole Miss hold a 5-2 record. However, five straight losses to end the season painted the true picture of the state of the program.
Defensive changes are the key to Ole Miss success in 2019…
There’s no escaping the need to change on defence is the key to improving. The fact isn’t lost on the program. The biggest overhaul to the unit won’t be in the roster, but on the coaching staff. Ole Miss adds Mike MacIntyre as the defensive co-ordinator. He brings not only a fresh face, but a change in scheme. His appointment looks set to rejuvenate the defence, and Matt Luke expanded on this at the SEC Media days this past week:
“Defensively you’re going to see a huge change. We’re going from four down to Mike MacIntyre’s 3-4 system. We’ve got a bunch of guys that have played a lot. And quite frankly, they’re tired of hearing how bad they are. I think you’re going to see a much improved defence.”
They return a lot of guys, as Luke referenced above. Of those returnees, much is expected of the linebacker duo of Mohamed Sanogo and Qadir Sheppard. Sanogo led the team in total tackles last year, and Sheppard led the team in tackles for loss. However, the unit as a whole will have to create more pressure on the opposition quarterback in 2019, and Sheppard will need to lead the way.
While the defensive roster returns a number of players, the offensive side of the ball is set for a number of changes.
The offence loses a number of big time contributors. Wide receivers D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown were both drafted in the 2019 NFL Draft. Brown’s loss is particularly huge, given his back to back 1000 yard seasons. There is, however, optimism for a wide receiver group that is set to be led by Elijah Moore.
Moore will be snagging passes from a new quarterback this summer after Jordan Ta’amu’s time with Ole Miss came to an end with the 2018 season. There is excitement within the program for his replacement, freshman Matt Corral.
“Matt’s a very talented guy, he can make all the throws. He’s got escapability in the pocket, and then all the intangibles with the toughness” said Coach Luke of his new QB1.
Corral will be operating behind a remade offensive line. Three of the five starters from last year are gone, with only tackle Alex Givens and guard Ben Brown returning. Royce Newman looks set to replace Greg Little at the other tackle spot but could see pressure from highly rated, 4* recruit, Darius Thomas.
Finally, there’s excitement about the running back room at Ole Miss this year. Jerrion Ealy is a 5* recruit who chose to stay in Mississippi over Alabama, Clemson and Michigan. Ealy was the top rated prospect in Mississippi and is a huge recruit for the Rebels. He’ll see time at multiple positions, as Scottie Phillips will be the main back for 2019.
Three key players to watch…
#22 Scottie Phillips – Running Back
Despite the recruitment of Ealy, Phillps will be the man to watch in 2019. Despite his appearance on both the Doak Walker and Maxwell Award pre-season watch lists, he doesn’t receive the plaudits that he deserves.
Phillips transferred to the Rebels from Jones County Junior College. He’d led the MACJC in his freshman year with 14 touchdowns, and compiled 1242 yards. His impressive performances over his two years earned him a place in the top 50 players in the nation.
He adapted to life in the SEC effortlessly in 2018. Phillips’ 12 rushing touchdowns ranked third in the conference. He racked up over 1000 yards on an average of 6.1 yards per carry.
Scottie Phillips is an exciting player to watch. He’s explosive and elusive at the line of scrimmage. He finds gaps that don’t really seem to exist and bursts through them like some sort of Houdini act. This is testament to his quick feet allowing him to change direction almost effortlessly. He’s fast in the open field too. After snagging 10 catches for over 100 yards and two touchdowns last year, he is clearly a receiving threat out of the backfield too.
#13 Sam Williams – Linebacker
Williams is another JUCO transfer looking for success in the SEC. This season will be his first for Ole Miss after transferring from Northeast Mississippi Community College.
Williams was an absolute game wrecker in his time at NMCC. Last season, he led the entire JUCO system in tackles for loss and sacks. His stat line from 2018 is insane:
28.5 tackles for loss. 17.5 sacks. 4 forced fumbles.
He was voted the MACJC defensive lineman of the year. After the defensive difficulties of last year, Williams is the type of play making threat that Ole Miss needs.
Despite playing defensive end for NMCC, he’ll transition to playing linebacker in Mike MacIntyre’s 3-4 defence. The transition shouldn’t be too difficult for him. During the Ole Miss spring game, he was extremely impressive and finished second on the team in tackles.
Alongside Sanogo and Sheppard, Sam Williams is set to rejuvenate the Ole Miss defence.
# 4 Tylan Knight – Athlete
Tylan Knight could be the most exciting player on the Ole Miss roster. The key to success in 2019 will be discovering the best way to utilise him.
The 2* recruit out of Pearl High School was a do-it-all player at the high school level. He tallied 240 tackles in his final two years at Pearl. At the same time, he contributed 2742 yards and 25 touchdowns on offence during his time there. He’s a true, both ways, athlete. In his senior year, he received the Mississippi Association of Coaches 6A Co-Player of the Year Award.
He continued to be a multi position player in his freshman season for the Rebels. His primary position was running back, however, with injuries to the secondary he saw time as a defensive back too.
For 2019, there’s a good chance that we see Knight playing as a wide receiver. He was the standout star on offence in the spring game. Lining up as a slot receiver, he grabbed five receptions for 91 yards and a touchdown.
Versatility is the key to a long football career. Excelling at wide receiver could be the key to an explosive one for Tylan Knight.
Are there six wins on the schedule?
There can be no denying the measure of success for the Ole Miss Rebels in 2019.
“Immediate goal for this year is to get this team back to the post season” were Matt Luke’s thoughts at SEC media days.
For that, it’s likely that they will need to win 6 games this season. It sounds a simple enough task when you consider that’s just one more than last year’s wretched season. It’s only the same number of wins as 2017. It’s as straight forward as winning all the non-SEC matchups, beating Arkansas again, and flipping one more team in the SEC that they couldn’t beat last year.
Simple? Maybe not.
There’s certainly two easy wins from non-SEC play. South Eastern Louisiana and New Mexico State shouldn’t provide too much difficulty. However, the Rebels opening game of the season at Memphis won’t be as straight forward. The reigning American West champions had the 7th ranked scoring offence in 2018. Although they lose star running back, Darrell Henderson, they still have a number of offensive weapons. It will be a big test of the new look Rebels defence.
A tough Cal secondary will present a challenge to Matt Corral in game 4. Although you’d expect the SEC team to overcome the PAC-12 outfit, victory isn’t a given. They follow that with a trip to Alabama where success may be defined by limiting the score in a defeat.
Games don’t come much more “must win” for Ole Miss than the game 6 clash with Vanderbilt.
The Rebels will be looking to avenge last years defeat by the Commodores, on Homecoming in Oxford. It’s a huge weekend for both programs. A defeat for Ole Miss would leave them requiring at least one win from a tough three game slate that follows. They travel to Missouri and Auburn, with a clash against Texas A & M in between.
It should be an easy win in game 10 against New Mexico State before entertaining LSU in game 11. The Tigers are the hot ticket this season and I can’t see a win coming for the Rebels.
Which leaves the Egg Bowl. The rivalry game with Mississippi State got out of hand last year, and resulted in a brawl. It could have more significance, and more passion, than ever before.
The game takes place on Thanksgiving. Will the Rebels be thankful for a return to post-season football? Or will the Egg Bowl be the last bowl action of the season for them?
That will be the true measure of a successful 2019 for the Ole Miss Rebels.
Feature Image Credit: www.olemisssports.com