On Saturday, 11 players will take the field for Ole Miss, and 11 will take the field for South Alabama, no focus on bowl bans, outside noise, or anything else Rebel nation has heard about since the end of the 2016 season. Whether your expectations are high or low, college football is back.
The Rebels are anxious to get back on the field to avenge their 5-7 record from a season ago, and here to lead the charge is sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson. Right alongside the young QB is a deep, wide receiving corps that could be one of the best in the country when it’s all said and done. Jacob Peeler has come in as the new WR coach, and has talent to work with; A.J. Brown, a healthy D.K. Metcalf, Van Jefferson and others will give the Rebels a vertical threat that will give opposing defensive coordinators fits during the 2017 season.
Jefferson is the team’s leading returning wide-out having totaled 543 yards in 2016. Metcalf only played in two games but hauled in two touchdowns and showed the type of physicality you’d expect from a 6’4 225-pound receiver before suffering a season ending injury. A.J. Brown will play in the slot this year and return punts, adding a level of versatility to his game that makes him a mismatch anywhere he lines up. South Alabama only gave up 174 yards per game through the air in 2016, but the aerial attack of the Rebels may be tougher than anything they faced last season.
This will be the first chance for the Rebels to show how they will operate on offense without Evan Engram, the teams leading receiver from a year ago. Dawson Knox, the projected starter, is out with a foot injury leaving Jason Pellerin, the converted QB, Ty Quick and others to battle it out for playing time on Saturday. OC Phil Longo gets his first opportunity to put his air raid style offense to the test at the D-1 level after leaving Sam Houston State to join the Rebel staff.
While the running game isn’t the primary focus for the Rebels in 2017, the return of Jordan Wilkins will give the Ole Miss offense an added dimension that it was missing in 2016. Wilkins will split time in the backfield with three other backs according to Longo and head coach Matt Luke.
“Jordan Wilkins will be the starter, and D’Vaughn Pennamon has had a really good fall camp,” Luke said. “In both the scrimmages he has been in when Jordan has been out, he has really stepped up and done a good job. You could see for sure Eric Swinney and Eugene Brazley, and potentially D.K. Buford, but Wilkins and Pennamon are leading the way there.”
The Jaguars have shown the ability to surprise teams in the past, and are able to compete with SEC opponents. South Alabama stunned Mississippi State in the 2016 opener, so the Rebels can’t take their opening week opponent lightly. Luke talked on Monday about the importance of a fast start to the season, and how the focus needed to be on execution.
“Fast starts are always very important. The guys will have watched that game on tape and understand it. It was also the first game of the season, and those are always tough because you never know really where you are or what to expect because of the changes you made in the offseason. It’s very important that we’re sound in what we do and can make the proper adjustments,” Luke said.
In 2016, the Ole Miss defense was exposed as a weak link, but a new energy from DC Wesley McGriff, replacing Dave Wommack, has given Rebel fans optimism with a physical style of play. Concern remains at safety and linebacker, but the group will be led by senior Marquis Haynes. Haynes has taken on a leadership role throughout camp and wants to lead the resurgence of the “Landsharks.” In the defensive backfield, freshman D.D. Bowie will see time at corner and at safety we may see several players rotate including Jaylon Jones, Myles Hartsfield, and others.
The South Alabama offense returns their core from 2016, led by quarterback Dallas Davis. While Davis didn’t put up major numbers with 11 TDs and 2,700 yards, he was able to orchestrate victories over MSU and #19 San Diego State. The team’s leading rusher, Xavier Johnson is back as well. Johnson scored 10 TDs and finished with 830 yards last season. The Rebel run defense has a chance to show improvement after allowing just under 250 yards per game on the ground in 2016.
Matt Luke is ready to take the field as the head coach of his alma mater for the first time and is anxious to start the 2017 season.
“All the players are really excited,” Luke said. “They’re ready to hit someone else other than themselves. (I’ve got) a lot of respect for Joey Jones and South Alabama. I’ve been very impressed with them. Big wins last year over Mississippi State and San Diego State. I’ve worked with Kane Wommack and Tyler Siskey, and both of those guys have worked here, and both are very good football coaches. We’re excited to get this thing cranked off.”
CB Jaylon Jones is among the many Rebels ready to get back on the field and hit someone with a different color jersey on.
“We’ve got some anger that we’re ready to show the whole world,” Jones said at the start of fall camp.
Where to watch/listen:
Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. at Vaught Hemingway Stadium. The game can be seen on ESPNU or heard Sirius 112/XM 191.
Steven Gagliano is the managing editor of HottyToddy.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.