As a writer and photographer for The Rebel Walk, I am fortunate to have an up-close view of the Ole Miss football team each week. Driving up to Oxford before the season-opener against South Alabama on Saturday, I was not quite sure what to expect, but I was filled with a sense of excitement.
Ole Miss was about to enter a new era with Matt Luke at the helm and Phil Longo and Wesley McGriff as offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively. I was eager to see how these 2017 Rebels would look and play, and I was not disappointed. Here are my thoughts on the first game of the season.
Observations from the field
On-field coaching – While the Rebels’ offense was on the field, defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff had his full complement of coaches on the sideline.
McGriff mentioned earlier in the week his plan to have all full-time defensive staff on the field with the team, as opposed to some of them being located in the press box. This allowed the defensive players to be close in proximity to their position coaches throughout the game.
From what I could tell, this worked quite well. The players were around their coaches and were visibly locked-in on the instructions they were receiving. They seemed hungry to fix mistakes and eager to learn and get better. You can’t ask for anything more.
Intensity – One could definitely feel the intensity on the defensive side of the ball. The players flew around; they were swarming. The coaches were meeting players on the field and everyone was amped up.
Offensively, there was excitement every time the Rebels took the field. You didn’t want to look away, because you knew you might miss another phenomenal pass and catch from Shea Patterson to whichever “nasty wideout” (as they call themselves) to whom he chose to throw.
Finish the play – One could tell the pre-season focus was there on finishing every play. Almost every kickoff ended with a touchback, but every single player remained focused on his assignment, regardless of whether or not the ball boomed into the end zone. The blocks were sustained longer by the offense, and defenders noticeably sprinted towards the ball carrier on each play.
Brotherhood – After the game, we heard Shea Patterson talk about Coach Luke’s pregame speech and the bond of brotherhood the players have with one another. Everything Patterson mentioned was evident before the game.
When the Rebels came out of the tunnel, their eyes told the story—they were playing with a different purpose; they were playing with renewed enthusiasm. One could actually feel the camaraderie and love these players share.
Offensive weapons – To no one’s surprise, the Ole Miss receivers are as good as advertised—even better, if that’s possible.
Last night it was A.J. Brown and his record-breaking performance of 233 receiving yards, but next week it could just as easily be D.K. Metcalf, DaMarkus Lodge, Markell Pack, or Van Jefferson. You cannot focus on any one receiver; any of them could set records on any given Saturday.
Physicality – The Rebels have improved physically. They look bigger, stronger and faster–their bodies more sculpted. It’s clear this group means business.
Coach Matt Luke – There’s no question Matt Luke is a demonstratively passionate coach. He’s always been that way. But last night, you could see the passion in his eyes, not just his actions. His enthusiasm and respect for what he refers to as his “dream job” at Ole Miss were obvious. Though I’ve been around athletics for over four decades, I still had butterflies in my stomach for him.
Watching Coach Luke in pre-game and on the sideline, one could see the fire in his eyes, as well as the love he has for his players. He may not have been the “sexiest” hire, but having passion for his school can be more important than a famous last name or a lengthy head-coaching pedigree.
And even more importantly, Matt Luke’s players trust and believe in him.
There was a lot of “new” last night, and it was good for the players, coaches and fans. The team dressed up for the trip through the Walk of Champions in the Grove, and they joined fans after the game in the singing of the school song.
(Photo credits: Josh McCoy and Cameron Brooks, Ole Miss Athletics)
One thing that did not change, however, is the support Rebel fans give to their team. Everyone associated with Ole Miss football endured a long, hard off-season filled with continued NCAA craziness, a lawsuit from one former coach and the resignation of another, and the seemingly never-ending attacks from some in the national media who seem to have lost all objectivity, so it was nice to finally get back to football.
Though there will, no doubt, be ups and downs throughout this season, the Ole Miss players and coaches look prepared to deal with both the good and the bad. They are as “together” as a team can possibly be, which is a testament to their strength of character and their coaching staff–especially given all the distractions they’ve had to overcome.
Next week Ole Miss plays UT-Martin at 11:00 am in Oxford and, as Coach Luke said last night, the biggest improvement in a team usually occurs between the first and second games.
Finally, in spite of what the national narrative may be, and regardless of what happens with the NCAA and its ruling on September 11 when the Committee on Infractions meets, Ole Miss fans have plenty to be excited about this season.
Until next time, Hotty Toddy!