Ole Miss football begins spring practices
OXFORD, Miss. – (Release) Ole Miss football officially embarked on its voyage for the 2023 season with its opening spring practice session on Tuesday morning.
Numerous new faces – both on the field and on the coaching staff – joined alongside Rebel returners as Ole Miss donned helmets and jerseys for Tuesday’s first practice inside the still-under-construction Manning Center indoor facility.
Head coach Lane Kiffin and the Rebels head into spring ball coming off a 2022 campaign that saw Ole Miss post an 8-5 record and make its third straight bowl appearance. Kiffin and the Rebels will be replacing 38 letterwinners, and are well on their way with 20 mid-year enrollees already on campus for workouts.
“It was really good to get back out there,” Kiffin said.
“Once again, a lot of new faces with the portal world that we live in. Also, again, a lot of new coaches, so a lot to work on there getting everyone situated and everyone together. It’ll be good to go watch film and see these guys run around today. I feel like there’s similarities from last year. We have a lot of new pieces in this year to look at and figure out, as well as a brand new defensive scheme to work them into as well.“
Coach Lane Kiffin
Change is the name of the game in modern college athletics, and under Kiffin the Rebels have emerged as national leaders in this new era. However, that doesn’t make the task of replacing 38 letterwinners any less daunting, even with 13 Division I transfers that On3 currently ranks as the No. 4 class in the team transfer rankings.
Ole Miss claimed four of the top 50 available transfers, according to On3, but getting all those new faces to mesh – and quickly – will be a key challenge for Kiffin and the Rebels.
It’s not just the players who are learning the ropes. Ole Miss features six new full-time coaches on staff for 2023 that will need to dive head-first into getting acclimated. New to Oxford this year are defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Pete Golding, offensive line coach John Garrison, cornerbacks coach Keynodo Hudson, safeties coach Wes Neighbors III, special teams coordinator Jake Schoonover, and then returning to Ole Miss after one year at Miami is running backs coach Kevin Smith.
“There will be a lot of new faces and new names, and that’s very challenging,” Kiffin said. “It’s challenging when your staff turns over. Our strength coach leaving (last year) was a very big challenge, because that is your offseason where a lot of that develops, so Coach (Nick) Savage being here helps that transition.”
GOLDING IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Several questions on Tuesday involved new defensive coordinator Pete Golding, who comes to Ole Miss after five seasons in the same role at Alabama.
In his five years leading the Crimson Tide defense, Alabama ranked top-20 in the FBS in scoring defense every season and finished top-10 in either scoring or total defense four times.
“It’s a little different scheme than what we played before and we have some new pieces here,” Kiffin said. “We also have new coaches, including Pete, so we have a lot of work to do there. We’ve seen this system work at a lot of places and now we’ve just got to get our guys to learn it.”
Golding will inherit an Ole Miss defense that was skilled at causing mayhem in the backfield, but yielded 388 yards per game last year. One of those pass rushers, senior defensive end Jared Ivey, ended a successful 2022 season with 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery, but said to media on Tuesday that last year is in the rear-view.
“(Last year) is something we live with every day and talk about often,” Ivey said. “You want to forget and move on, and just focus on what’s next. It’s good to process those feelings and try to use them to go into the next season and go harder and have more attention to detail and keep things together down the stretch.”
Safety and fellow senior Isheem Young also spoke Tuesday about using last year as motivation for the defense throughout spring ball.
“(Last year) just motivates us to go way harder,” Young said. “Offseason, spring ball, to come out way harder next season.”
Both also had high praise for the new Rebel defensive coordinator.
“I was very excited, and the first time I talked to him it was great,” Ivey said. “Obviously he’s a big-time guy, he’s had a lot of success everywhere he’s been, and getting a coach like that is always great.”
“(Golding) is more of a calm, cool, collected coach, and it seems like he’s got a good scheme going on for our defense,” Young said.
SIGNAL CALLER SHOWDOWN
The biggest question throughout spring ball is sure to be the quarterback competition between junior and 2022 Ole Miss starter Jaxson Dart, senior Oklahoma State transfer Spencer Sanders, and freshman LSU transfer Walker Howard.
Dart ended last year with 2,974 yards and 20 touchdowns passing for the Rebels, while adding 614 yards and a score on the ground.
Sanders was rated a four-star transfer and the nation’s No. 19 overall transfer according to On3. Sanders appeared in 43 career games for the Cowboys, earning 2019 Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year and 2021 first team All-Big 12 accolades. He threw for 9,553 yards, ran for 1,956 yards and posted 85 total touchdowns during his four-year career in Stillwater. Sanders went 30-11 as a starter, which included an 11-2 mark in 2021.
Howard was Ole Miss’ highest rated transfer according to 247Sports, coming in at No. 35. Howard appeared in two contests for the Tigers as a true freshman in 2022, and was one of the nation’s top quarterback prospects in the 2022 class. Howard was rated as the nation’s No. 1 dual-threat QB by ESPN and listed No. 5 by 247Sports.
“I see (the QB battle) being very competitive,” Kiffin said. “I think Jaxson (Dart) is throwing really well. He’s had some time to recover and has gotten stronger and has looked much improved. Spencer (Sanders) was limited throwing initially with a previous injury, but he was out there today taking reps. We’re excited about all three guys. It’s much different that where we were a year ago as far as depth and quality in the room.”
All three practiced on Tuesday according to Kiffin, but he also stressed the long road ahead to a decision on who will start for the Rebels come September.
“Our evaluations usually comes down to timing, accuracy and decision making. But we’ve got a long time, spring and fall, to figure it out and let guys play,” Kiffin said. “The goal is to improve depth of every room that you have, and that’s when you become a really good team.”
Ole Miss returns to practice this Thursday, March 23.
The public is invited to attend the April 1 and 8 Saturday practices inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Gates for the open practice will open at 10:15 a.m., with the practice set to begin approximately at 10:45 a.m. The open practice times are subject to change. Seating will be available in the south grandstand.
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.