Ole Miss – 2018 SEC Preview
Ole Miss finished the 2017 season on a high note, defeating in-state rival Mississippi State, 31-28, in the Egg Bowl. Following the victory, interim head coach Matt Luke was named head coach of the Rebels and he and his staff wrapped up a solid 2018 recruiting class that finished 30th in the nation.
Though Ole Miss is facing an additional year bowl ban that renders the team ineligible for the post season this year, Matt Luke and his team have shown they don’t need a trip out of town and a few bags of swag in order to have plenty for which to play. (Ole Miss has appealed the bowl ban and is awaiting word from the NCAA, which is expected to come later this fall.)
Here’s a look at the offense and defense for the Rebs.
Offensive coordinator Phil Longo returns eight starters to what should be one of the best offenses in the nation this season. The Rebels averaged 462 yards and 33 points per game in 2017, and they should be expected to pick up right where they left off.
The Ole Miss offense is loaded with weapons. Four of the Rebels’ five main targets are back, beginning with All-SEC standout A.J. Brown. The junior wide receiver had a breakout season in 2017, playing in all 12 games for the Rebels. He led the team with 75 receptions for 1,252 yards and tallied 11 receiving touchdowns on the season.
Brown has already received several preseason honors, including being named to 2018 Watch Lists for the Maxwell Award, Biletnikoff Award, and Walter Camp Award. He’s also been named 2018 Preseason All-America First Team by ESPN, The Athletic, Athlon, Sporting News, Phil Steele, and the AP. He was recently named Preseason All-SEC First Team by Athlon, Lindy’s, Phil Steele, and by the Southeastern Conference league coaches.
Joining him are DaMarkus Lodge, and D.K. Metcalf. The three-headed monster of Brown, Metcalf and Lodge combined for 25 touchdown receptions last season. Sophomore wide receiver Braylon Sanders and tight end Dawson Knox are additional targets for senior quarterback Jordan Ta’amu.
Ta’amu, the former JUCO transfer who stepped in when Rebels’ starter Shea Patterson was injured last year in the LSU game, was absolutely superb at quarterback in 2017. In eight games (five of which were starts) in 2017, Ta’amu threw for 1,682 yards and 11 touchdowns, with only four picks. In a conference loaded with talent at QB, Ta’amu made a name for himself, finishing first in the SEC in yards per pass attempt (9.72), tied for first in completion percentage at 66.5, (with Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham), and second in passer rating (164.51) only behind Missouri’s highly-acclaimed Drew Lock (165.68).
At running back, Ole Miss lost Jordan Wilkins to graduation. He led the way last season with 1,011 yards and nine scores and will be tough to replace. However, the Rebels have been more than pleased with JUCO transfer Scottie Phillips who impressed coaches in both the spring and fall camp with his physicality. Phillips has been named the starter, while Eric Swinney and Isaiah Woullard have been named the backups. (Update: Eric Swinney has been diagnosed with mononucleosis and will sit out for approximately the first three weeks of the season.)
When it comes to the big men up front, the Ole Miss offensive line is blessed with both talent and experience as the line has a combined 103 starts between them.
Leading the way for the big men up front will be senior center Sean Rawlings and junior left tackle and second-team All-American Greg Little. They are joined by returning starters Javon Patterson, Alex Givens, Jordan Sims, and new talent, such as sophomore Ben Brown who will start at right guard. That’s a lot of guys coming back–and all of them have had a year in Longo’s system.
While the Rebels’ offense was prolific last season, the defense was a bit of a different issue as Ole Miss allowed 460 yards and 35 points per game. Seven starters return, however, and there is optimism in Oxford that the players have a much better grasp of Wesley McGriff’s system.
With defensive ends Marquis Haynes and Breeland Speaks now playing in the NFL, the Rebels’ will need to replace their production from last season. Austrian Robinson and Qaadir Sheppard will start at defensive end for the Rebels. The tackle situation is solid, with with Benito Jones, a 315-pound rising star on the nose and with 302-pound Josiah Coatney, one of the SEC’s best all-around interior defenders.
Defensive coordinator McGriff has high hopes for this year’s defense, especially at the linebacker spot. Sophomore Mohamed Sanogo and true freshman Kevontae’ Ruggs will be the two starting linebackers against the Red Raiders in the season-opener.
The Ole Miss secondary brings much experience into the 2018 season. Ken Webster and Javien Hamilton are nursing sore hamstrings as the Rebels enter their season-opener against Tech, but they are expected to get some snaps in the game. Myles Hartsfield will start at corner opposite Jaylon Jones. They’ll be joined in the defensive backfield by safeties C.J. Moore and Zedrick Woods, along with STAR Montrell Custis.
With 8 returning starters on offense and 7 on defense, as well as both coordinators back for 2018, one important theme for the Rebels is continuity. The players have had a year under their belt in their respective offensive and defensive schemes and are that much more comfortable with their roles.
There is no doubt the offense will score points. With a returning veteran quarterback, offensive line, and receivers, the only question mark entering the 2018 campaign is finding Jordan Wilkins’ replacement at running back. If Phillips and company can come close to replacing Wilkins–the first 1,000 yard rusher for Ole Miss since Dexter McCluster — this offense will continue to be balanced and very hard to stop.
Defensively, if the Rebels communicate on the field as well as Coach McGriff anticipates they will, fans should see a much-improved product. Part of the enhanced communication stems from the fact that sophomore middle linebacker MoMo Sanogo has developed his football IQ to the point where it has impressed the coaches tremendously. He is adept at getting the defense lined up and will be a huge asset to true freshman linebacker Kevontae’ Ruggs who will be at outside.
Vegas predicts the Rebels will win 5.5 games this season–but here at The Rebel Walk, we will happily take the over on that as we believe the boys in Red and Blue will end the season with a better record than last year’s 6-6 finish.
Evelyn has covered sports for over two decades, beginning her journalism career as a sports writer for a newspaper in Austin, Texas. She attended Texas A&M and majored in English. Evelyn’s love for Ole Miss began when her daughter Katie attended the university on a volleyball scholarship. Evelyn created the Rebel Walk in 2013 and has served as publisher and managing editor since its inception.