This offseason was a tumultuous one — to say the least — in Oxford as Ole Miss has continued to be under the NCAA’s magnifying glass. Not to mention Hugh Freeze abruptly resigned amid scandal just before the start of fall camp.
With the turmoil, however, has come an opportunity for Gulfport’s own Matt Luke to lead his alma mater.
Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork has repeatedly said he has no immediate list for a full-time replacement and plans to let the season play out before making any official hire. That message won’t stop Luke from coaching as if it’s his job to lose, starting Sept. 2 when South Alabama visits Oxford for a 6:30 p.m. kickoff.
“I am an emotional person, so that will be there,” he said, asked if his mind wanders about what could be in the future if the 2017 season is a success. “You can’t get too far ahead of yourself. One practice at a time, one day at a time, one game at a time. If we take care of that, the big picture will take care of itself.”
After being elevated to interim head coach, Luke said he reached out to some of his closest friends in the coaching fraternity, including Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre, Mizzou’s Barry Odom, Duke’s David Cutcliffe and former Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer. Each gave similar advice, he said.
“(Their advice was) be yourself. Take what you’ve learned, but be yourself,” he said. “Don’t try to be somebody you’re not. Be yourself and it will be good enough.”
Luke seems to have taken that advice to heart and plans to mold the 2017 Rebels into his team.
“I lean on all the other great head coaches that I’ve been around in my 18-year coaching career. I’ve been around some great guys who’ve had success at every level,” he said. “You lean on the experiences that you’ve had, but then you put your own flavor on it. You have to be yourself; you can’t be somebody that you’re not. You take all that you have learned and put your own stamp on it.”
Luke set the tone early in his tenure when, to open Ole Miss’ media day on Aug. 2, he announced the suspensions of defensive back Ken Webster and linebacker Detric Bing-Dukes following arrests.
It’s true the Rebels lost plenty of production with the graduations of players like quarterback Chad Kelly, tight end Evan Engram and defensive back Tony Bridges, but the Rebels believe they still have enough talent to compete each Saturday — even if the motivation of a potential bowl has been removed from the equation.
The key to 2017 will likely fall on sophomore Shea Patterson. Considered to be one of the top quarterback nationally in the 2016 signing class, Patterson was thrust into duty late last year when Kelly went down with injury and the Rebels’ bowl chances rapidly dwindling.
Patterson completed 54.5 percent of his passes for 880 yards and six touchdowns with three interceptions. He should have plenty of targets with several highly touted receivers returning in A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, Van Jefferson and DeMarkus Lodge, to name a few. Jefferson leads all returning receivers with 49 catches for 543 yards and three touchdowns last season.
As usual, the Rebels’ running back depth will be a point of intrigue early in the season. After being ruled academically ineligible for 2016, Jordan Wilkins is back and expected to lead his group. He scared Rebel fans early in camp when he suffered a knee injury in practice, but the ding was later revealed to be a minor issue. D’Vaughn Pennamon and Eugene Brazley saw limited snaps a year ago but should provide solid depth. A wildcard is Eric Swinney, a top 2015 signee who was sidelined each of the last two seasons due to major injuries.
Aiding Patterson and a somewhat fragile running backs group will be an experienced offensive line that returns former top prospect Greg Little at left tackle along with Javon Patterson and Jordan Sims at the guard spots, Rod Taylor at right tackle and Sean Rawlings in the middle.
Another wildcard with the offense will be the play-calling of new air-it-out coordinator Phil Longo, who moved to Oxford from Sam Houston State during the winter.
About that defense
Ole Miss’ defense will once again be a big liability. The Rebels were among the SEC’s worst a year ago and failed to add any big difference makers — that is outside of bringing back former assistant Wesley McGriff as coordinator.
“We’re not looking back at last year, we’re moving forward. The biggest thing is keeping it simple,” Luke said. “Knowledge equals confidence equals playing fast. That’s our goal to keep it simple and let the guys go play hard. We have some ability, some guys coming back with experience. But our main focus will be keeping it simple and playing good, hard, sound football.”
The good news for the Rebels on defense is they return six of their top seven tacklers from 2016 in DeMarquis Gates (79), Zedrick Woods (63), Marquis Haynes (53), Myles Hartsfield (43), A.J. Moore (42) and Bing-Dukes (41).
The strength of the defense will likely be the line, where Haynes is a bonafide sack artist with 24 1/2 in his career. Bonito Jones will be one to watch in the middle of the line as the hulking sophomore takes on a larger role. Webster, who was injured in the Rebels’ opener a year ago, should be a big addition assuming he’s fully healthy once he returns from suspension.
Outside of Luke, the Coast connections are practically non-existent at Ole Miss. Former Moss Point standout KeShun Wells is listed at running back. Biloxi’s Kweisi Fountain is a junior defensive back.
Ole Miss at a glance
2016 record: 5-7, 2-6 SEC
Coach: Matt Luke (first year)
Key returnees: QB Shea Patterson, LT Greg Little, K Gary Wunderlich, P Will Gleeson, LB DeMarquis Gates, DE Marquis Haynes
Key losses: QB Chad Kelly, TE Evan Engram, WR Damore'ea Stringfellow, RB Akeem Judd DL Fadol Brown, DB Tony Conner, DL D.J. Jones, DB Tony Bridges
Sept. 2: South Alabama
Sept. 9: UT-Martin
Sept. 16: At Cal
Sept. 30: At Alabama
Oct. 7: At Auburn
Oct. 14: Vanderbilt
Oct. 21: LSU
Oct. 28: Arkansas
Nov. 4: At Kentucky
Nov. 11: Louisiana-Lafayette
Nov. 18: Texas A&M
Nov. 23: At Mississippi State
WR A.J. Brown
WR Markell Pack
WR D.K. Metcalf
LF Greg Little
LG Javon Patterson
C Sean Rawlings
RG Jordan Sims
RT Rod Taylor
TE Dawson Knox
QB Shea Patterson
RB Jordan Wilkins
K Gary Wunderlich
DE Marquis Haynes
DT Breeland Speaks
NT Benito Jones
DE Qaadir Sheppard
LB DeMarquis Gates
LB Detric Bing-Dukes
CB Jaylon Jones
S Ken Webster
S Zedrick Woods
S C.J. Moore
CB Myles Hartsfield
P Will Gleeson