With the college baseball season coming to a dramatic close last night, we have reached the dog days of summer – ripe with pent-up tension and excitement, fueled by angst for a coming football season, calling from just close enough around the corner to drive you to madness.
Ole Miss, for better or worse, will finally play a football season with some sense of normalcy. There’s no NCAA investigation buzzing about like an annoying mosquito, and there’s no controversial head coach hell bent on tossing gasoline on an already-blazing fire, nor is there a head coach, overcome by his own hubris, blindly leading the program to a certain doom.
No, this season the student-athletes get to play football. Yes, there’s an ongoing NCAA appeal, but it’s largely in the background. The Rebels are going to take the field in September with the game they love being the major story for the first time since an ever-ridiculous tweet was sent some five years ago.
They won’t get to play in a postseason game (barring an unlikely turn of events from a diseased bureaucracy), but Ole Miss gets 12 normal football games in 2018/19, free of childish outside drama.
Rebel legends in the making like A.J. Brown, Greg Little, DaMarkus Lodge, and D.K. Metcalf have a dozen opportunities to leave their mark on the program, so what would make the season a success?
In simpleton terms, progress and normalcy will be the most-promising signs of success. Improvements to maintaining continued balance on offense – something that has troubled Ole Miss for the last half decade – and signs of life from a young defense, looking to pick itself up out of the SEC’s pit of misery and back into the elite force, with intent of bringing pain and suffering everywhere it traveled that it once was would be the start of peeling back years of frustration from the fanbase.
If Matt Luke and staff can couple the previously stated with an exciting recruiting class, his program could enter a rarity of late – supreme confidence, especially with a draft night for the (good) record books sure to come shortly after.
But what will Luke have at his disposal? In short, it’s an unbalanced roster, though it has generational talents in places.
The offense returns the best receiving core in the nation: A.J. Brown is the best receiver in school history and the best in the country, D.K. Metcalf might break a defensive back in half next season, and DaMarkus Lodge has been a consistent threat on the outside opposite Metcalf, freeing up Brown to punish the middle of opposing defenses.
The Rebels also return a rarity up front – a complete starting offensive line is returning, complete with a future first-round pick at left tackle – Greg Little. Along with Javon Patterson at left guard, Ole Miss will be strong up front, and Alex Givens will only continue to grow and develop at right tackle. The unit led by NFL-veteran-coach Jack Bicknell should improve upon a strong finish to the 2017/18 season and pave the way for a rushing attack fueled by fresh faces.
The rushing attack is the first point of nervous energy around the Rebels, as 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Wilkins headed to the NFL. Scottie Phillips, a junior college transfer, is expected to fill that void, but he is going to be thrown to the wolves as he adjusts to life in the southeastern conference.
At quarterback, which will make or break the offense, Ole Miss turns to Jordan Ta’amu, a revelation at the end of last season while filling in for the since-departed Shea Patterson. Ta’amu showed an uncanny feel and fit for Phil Longo’s offense, as the offense reached a new gear, fueled by a nasty rushing attack. Still, Ta’amu has never been the guy – all the pressure is on him this season to boom or bust. If he struggles with the expectations, then the Ole Miss offense will struggle.
As stacked as the offense is, the young defense draws reserved-but-pointed criticism and nervous energy. The landsharks defense lost its top two tackle-getters in Breeland Speaks and DeMarquis Gates, as well as losing two pass rushers and sack leaders Marquis Haynes and Breeland Speaks.
The defensive front seven is getting a make-over from season’s past. Speaks and Haynes have headed to the NFL, clearing two spots on the line, while starting linebackers DeMarquis Gates and Tayler Polk graduated.
But there is hope, at least up front – Benito Jones and Josiah Coatney could form one of the best defensive tackle combos in the conference, and there is promise on the ends. Qaadir Sheppard is a promising Syracuse transfer who battled injuries in 2017, and Victor Evans will return from injury. Markel Winters and Charles Wiley at least look the part of a promising defensive end, and Ryder Anderson, now a sophomore, exudes the look of a future star on the edge with his 6-foot-6 body promising to fill out.
The linebacker position has troubled Ole Miss for a few seasons now, and the Rebels must show signs of progress at the position. Willie Hibbler has shown flashes, while redshirt freshman Josh Clarke has turned some heads of his own. Mohamed Sonago could work time, too. Junior college transfer Vernon Dasher will be counted on to fill an outside linebacker or nickel role, but he will have a steep learning curve.
The Ole Miss secondary, returning all but one transfer, could return to its once-menacing form. They used to be feared, but can they get back to it?
But in the end, wins and losses won’t be the success or failure of this season, nor will wins and losses in 2018/19 determine future success of the program. Normalcy and the ability to showcase a balanced offense and improving defense will, however. So will a good recruiting class, headlined by the possibility of five-star linebacker Nakobe Dean of Horn Lake, who may be one of the few “must-gets” in a recruiting cycle, given recent failures at the position.
Matt Luke has to show promising signs of a heartbeat within his program and that his program will be better than his predecessor. He has to show the ability to fill positions of need and build a balanced roster, as opposed to one that ignores the blatantly obvious to chase a recruiting rankings boost.
Luke’s program has to be efficient – his predecessor was not efficient, despite tastes of extraordinary success that left a fan-base desperate for more, and it became one of his many downfalls.