OXFORD, Miss. – Ole Miss opens the 2017 season tomorrow against South Alabama in Coach Matt Luke’s debut as the Rebels’ head coach. It is also the first time the two schools will play one another. The Jaguars surprised many last year when they beat Mississippi State 21-20 in Starkville and went on to defeat then-No. 19 San Diego State.
We’ve compiled this scouting report on South Alabama, including the Jaguars’ connections to Ole Miss.
Scouting the South Alabama offense
On offense, the Jaguars will lean on junior quarterback Dallas Davis and senior running back Xavier Johnson to move the football. As a sophomore last season, Davis threw for 2,706 yards and 11 touchdowns while adding 245 yards on the ground.
In the Rebels’ weekly press conference Monday, defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff made it clear he’s aware of Davis’ ability to get the ball down field.
“Their guy can extend a play with his feet; he is a pinpoint passer with a nice arm and he does a good job spreading the ball around,” McGriff said.
“They do a good job of giving him packages that match his skill set. They will throw the quick game a lot, but they also like to go vertical, which means we will have to keep the top on the coverage at all times. They will challenge us vertically early and often, we believe. That is in their DNA.”
Ole Miss DC Wesley McGriff on South Alabama offense
McGriff knows the Rebels will also need to contain Johnson, who he feels is South Alabama’s top player. Johnson is on the Paul Hornung Preseason Watch List, having rushed for 831 yards and 10 touchdowns a season ago.
“Their best offensive player is running back Xavier Johnson,” McGriff said. “He has a really good skill-set and he is a one-decision guy who has been coached well. “He’s going to make his decision, get his toe in the ground and go north and south,” he added.
Johnson was the team’s leading rusher last season, and only needs 362 yards to pass Kendall Houston (2,587) for first place on the South Alabama career rushing list. McGriff knows the Rebel defense will need to stay alert to keep Johnson from making explosive plays.
“He has the ability to get to the second level and close the door. He has good short are quickness and good long speed. They will find creative ways to get him the ball.”
Coach McGriff on South Alabama RB Xavier Johnson
South Alabama’s Davis will line up on Saturday without his top four targets from last season in wide receivers Josh Magee, Kevin Kutchera, Tyrone Williams, and tight end Gerald Everett, meaning the Jaguars’ offense will lean heavily on its rushing attack. However, the Jaguars’ running game will be helped with key players returning to the offensive line in seniors Dominic Esposito, Harrison Louden and junior Noah Fisher.
Scouting the Jaguars’ defense
On the defensive side, South Alabama brings back six starters, including the team’s leading tackler in linebacker Darrell Songy, who posted 100 tackles, including 7.5 tackles for loss in 2016.
The other notable Jaguars’ returnees include: defensive linemen Zach Befort, Chason Milner, Tyree Turner, and safeties Jeremy Reaves and Neiko Robinson.
In all, the Jaguars return 24 letter-winners from a defensive unit that had one of the best productive defenses in the nation a year ago. The group finished No. 9 in the nation in passing defense, only allowing 174.6 yards per game.
Another key player returning for South Alabama is defensive end Jimmie Gipson III, who has missed the last two seasons due to left-leg injuries—a torn Achilles tendon suffered during the summer of 2015 and a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee last fall.
The former JUCO transfer begins his sixth year of college football this weekend and has been competing for a starting spot at defensive end. He was an All-American at East Mississippi Community College in 2013 and led the nation with 17 sacks.
South Alabama/Ole Miss Connections
Jaguar defensive coordinator Kane Wommack was a defensive graduate assistant at Ole Miss during the 2012 and ’13 seasons, working under his father, Coach Dave Wommack, who was the Rebels’ defensive coordinator from 2012 until retiring at the end of last year.
Current South Alabama assistant coach Tyler Siskey was also on the Rebels’ staff during the 2012 season, serving as Ole Miss’ program coordinator of recruiting development.
Ole Miss defensive line coach Freddie Roach was a member of the Jaguars’ coaching staff during the 2013 and 2014 seasons where he worked with the defensive ends and outside linebackers. Coach Roach is the younger brother of Tim Bowens, a Jaguar assistant coach.
South Alabama: South Alabama South Alabama offensive guard Nelson Santiago will miss Saturday’s game due to injury, head coach Joey Jones announced on Monday. The sophomore Santiago, the team’s starting right guard, suffered an ankle injury during fall camp and has undergone surgery. Senior Harrison Louden has been working as No. 1 right guard in Santiago’s absence.
Ole Miss: Coach Luke said earlier this week sophomore defensive end Qaadir Sheppard will miss the season opener, and right guard Jordan Sims will be a game-time decision. Tight end Dawson Knox (foot) is out for the game vs. South Alabama, as is defensive tackle Garrald McDowell (knee).
Where to find the game:
For those not attending the game in Oxford, it will be televised at 6:30 p.m. (CT) on ESPNU. Anish Shroff will handle play-by-play, with Ahmad Brooks serving as analyst and Roddy Jones covering the sideline. The game will also be broadcast on satellite radio on Sirius channel 112 and XM channel 191.