The last month for Matt Luke has been a whirlwind as he adjusts to life as Ole Miss’ new head coach.
He'll take a big step Saturday toward figuring out if the transition has been a success. That’s when Ole Miss hosts South Alabama in the season opener for both teams.
Luke knows it will likely be an emotional moment: The 40-year-old has deep family ties to north Mississippi. He was an offensive lineman for the Rebels in the 1990s and his brother and dad also played for the school.
“That’s going to be one of my biggest challenges this game is controlling my emotions,” Luke said. “To be a very efficient and organized head coach and not let my emotions get to me.
“But I’m excited and prepared for it.”
Luke earned his first job as a head coach through surreal circumstances. Former coach Hugh Freeze – whose staff Luke worked on for five seasons – abruptly resigned in July after the school found a “pattern of personal misconduct” that started when the school found a call to an escort service in his university phone records.
Luke was immediately elevated to interim head coach and the Rebels started preseason camp less than two weeks later. The Ole Miss offense is young, but talented, and led by a group of sophomores like quarterback Shea Patterson, left tackle Greg Little and receivers Van Jefferson and A.J. Brown.
Luke – who was the co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach before his promotion – said he’s comfortable letting Phil Longo lead the offense and Wesley McGriff lead the defense while he takes more of an administrative role.
“I think I can be into the game and be a motivator,” Luke said. “But I want to make sure I’m making good decisions.”
Here are other things to watch when the Rebels host the Jaguars on Saturday:
Wilkins' Return: Ole Miss hopes its running game will get a boost from the return of Jordan Wilkins. The senior missed all of the 2016 season because of an academic issue after running for 379 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore. He'll be the starter this season, though backups D'Vaughn Pennamon, Eugene Brazley and Eric Swinney could see time.
Shea The Sophomore: Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson started three games in November last season, throwing for 880 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions in a mostly impressive freshman debut. More is expected from the sophomore, though it remains to be seen how he'll bounce back from the departure of Freeze, who was very close to the quarterback and his family.
Need Some Defense: The Ole Miss defense hopes to bounce back from a brutal season. The Rebels gave up 34 points per game last season, which was the worst mark in the Southeastern Conference. Ole Miss will be led by a veteran defensive line that includes Marquis Haynes and Breeland Speaks.
Upset Special: South Alabama is a 23 1 / 2-point underdog on Saturday, but it would be unwise to say the Jaguars don’t have a chance. Facing similar odds last season, South Alabama stunned Mississippi State 21-20 in the season opener. The Jaguars overcame a 17-0 halftime deficit in that game.
Johnson Rushing For Records: South Alabama running back Xavier Johnson needs less than 400 yards rushing this season to become the school’s all-time leader in the category. Kendall Houston is the current leader with 2,587 yards rushing from 2010-14.
South Alabama at Ole Miss
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium
Radio: WOSM 103.1 FM