South Alabama heads to Oxford on Saturday night to take on Ole Miss at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. It’s a weird time right now in Oxford as the Rebels are facing a bowl ban, future NCAA penalties, and an impending coaching search.
To help us find the pulse of the current state of the program, we bounced some questions off a member of the SB Nation fraternity. Juco All-American chatted with to help us learn about the 2017 Rebels.
Adam Luckett: What are the expectations as Ole Miss transitions to first time head coach Matt Luke? Are fans supportive of the alum?
Juco All-American: You know, this season is just destined to be wacky. Ole Miss could finish anywhere from 4-8 to 8-4. We just don’t really have any idea how the team will respond to changes in coaching. It’s not just Luke; there are three new coaches on the defensive side (including coordinator Wesley McGriff) and three new coaches on offense (including offensive coordinator Phil Longo). Hugh Freeze was never really willing to let go of the offense, but Luke has given Longo free reign to call his own plays. We’ll see how that works out.
As you can imagine, this level of uncertainty causes fan expectations to vary wildly. Some think the team won’t win an SEC game. Others think the offense could be good enough to win nine games. Tough to really fully personify one fan expectation.
As far as support, it seems that most fans understand the university didn’t have much choice on the coaching front. Who would want to step into a situation like this before NCAA sanctions are even known? It made sense to promote from within, and Matt Luke was probably the best choice, given how forgiving most of the fan base will be to a former starting player whose brother played QB and father played defensive back for the Rebs. I’d say there’s generally a level of support, though many fans also really won’t be satisfied without a full-on coaching search after sanctions are announced or finished.
AL: How has the transition to offensive coordinator Phil Longo gone? What are the expectations for the offense?
JAA: Well, there’s obviously a lot we don’t know about Longo, but it does seem likely that he calls passing plays that work. His system is built around exploiting mismatches and “chasing space” on the field. This puts pressure on the receivers to make route tree decisions based on what the defense is giving them. There’s obviously opportunity for that to go poorly, given Shea Patterson may not be able to anticipate what the receivers will do, but… the receiving corps has potential to be other worldly, so it should also produce lots of highlights.
The running game is anyone’s guess. Longo succeeded there as well while he was coaching at Sam Houston State, but the transition may not be as easy when he’s coaching at the FBS level. Also, even though the line returns a lot of experience, it’s mostly bad experience, so what happens when they can’t drive block anyone? I think we’ll get a lot of clarity over the next few weeks as to how the offense will play, even outside of SEC play.
AL: How has the transition to defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff gone? What should we expect from the 2017 Ole Miss defense?
JAA: He’s incredibly different than Dave Wommack. McGriff is emotional dynamite whose main contribution is likely to be keeping the defense excited and ready to go. This is his first experience as a sole playcaller, so there’s simply inexperience there. Wommack was a tactician of sorts who struggled mightily in motivating players. That means that when things went well, he looked like a genius. When things started breaking apart, it was tough for him to get the guys mentally prepared to recover.
The defense itself can’t be worse than it was last year. There’s still trouble at linebacker, but the defensive line’s potential dominance should help stem that a little. On the back end, fans and national media appear to think there are tremendous problems in the secondary. I’m not sure that’s the case, though there is one safety spot they’ve been throwing players from all over the field into hoping one will work there. The biggest problem is likely to be in stopping long runs.
AL: How excited are the fans for the upcoming season with the potential NCAA violations hanging over the program?
JAA: Like many other things, the fans are split here. Most of the writers at Red Cup are thrilled with the idea that this season is going to be extreme chaos at all times. This team could lose to South Alabama and then beat Auburn. Other fans are resigned to not watch, or only watch occasionally. I guess it just boils down to whether fans are willing to reset expectations, given the circumstances.
AL: What are the strengths and weaknesses of Ole Miss?
JAA: Strengths: passing game, pressuring the quarterback
Weaknesses: consistently getting enough push to run well, stopping the run
AL: Who are the surprise players South Alabama needs to be aware of?
JAA: I often struggle with questions like this because I don’t really know the level of surprise readers are looking for. Like, do you know who starting receiver A.J. Brown is? Because he could end up torching secondaries all year, as could fellow starters DK Metcalf and Damarkus Lodge. All are unproven but oozing talent.
On defense, one player to watch out for is probably linebacker Demarquis Gates. Gates led the team in tackles last year but certainly isn’t a flashy player and struggled at times. Still, there’s a lot of promise there, as he’s quite physically gifted. When he’s on, he can make a big difference. Another defensive starter to watch out for is strong safety Zedrick Woods. Again, he doesn’t typically produce huge plays. He just typically makes things tougher for opponents in his area. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough defenders this team can say that about.
AL: Will Shea Patterson take a significant jump as a sophomore?
JAA: Yes. Yes he will.
Word out of camp is that he’s crushing it, and the receiving corps around him is capable of great things. I thought he was actually quite good in his three starts last season, beating Texas A&M nearly single-handedly offensively. The team was crumbling around him, but he didn’t look bad.