Photo courtesy of Ole Miss Athletics/Petre Thomas
As spring practice comes to a close for Ole Miss, the team held the annual ‘Grove Bowl’ over the weekend. This was the first chance for Rebel fans to get a look at the team after the arrival of two new coordinators and see what the offense will look like with new starting QB Matt Corral under center.
SportsTalk Mississippi’s Ole Miss Beat Reporter Brian Scott Rippee was at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday afternoon and offered up his thoughts on the spring game.
- Story by Brian Scott Rippee
The defense beat the offense in the Grove Bowl, 29-25.
Not much stock should be placed into the final score, or even the statistics.
But with two new coordinators and a young football team, what did we learn about Ole Miss on Saturday?
Here are eight observations.
- This is Matt Corral’s offense
Hot take to start things off, right? Obviously, this is not breaking news, but it is an interesting dynamic with Corral being the de facto veteran as a redshirt freshman in a room full of guys that should still be in high school.
Corral went 22-of-37 for 240 with one touchdown and one interception on a ball deflected at the line of scrimmage. It is difficult to properly evaluate Corral when he is wearing a white non-contact jersey and unable to tuck the ball and run. But he looked good at times throwing the football and not so great other times. The arm talent is there and he has at least proven to be a willing-enough runner to fit Rich Rodriguez’ scheme. The coaches have been pleased with his progression.
“Matt has had a great spring,” Rodriguez said. “Today probably wasn’t his sharpest day, but it is important to him. When he makes a mistake, he immediately wants to get it corrected. Matt is going to be the leader of that unit. It comes with the position, but he has the personality to handle it.”
- Mohamed Sanogo led the team with eight tackles
Sanogo is obviously going to start at inside linebacker in this 3-4 scheme. And just like last year, the junior is going to be a veteran on a young defense, a task that is as tough as it seems, especially considering Sanogo is just as new to this scheme as anyone else on the roster.
He cited the main difference in responsibilities from last year is that he is no longer confined to a single gap on a given play.
“I am not stuck in a gap,” Sanogo said. “I can hit a couple of different gaps depending on what the offense does. You have to be smarter, but if you are smart it works well.”
3. With Phillips sidelined, Conner and Pennamon saw a lot of action.
Senior running back Scottie Phillips was held out of Saturday’s action as a precautionary measure, leaving a large chunk of the workload to be delegated elsewhere in Rich Rodriguez’ ground-heavy scheme. Snoop Conner toted the football 10 times for 52 yards and D’Vaughn Pennamon had eight carries for 27 yards.
Pennamon, a junior, missed all of last season while still recovering from a catastrophic knee injury suffered at the end of the 2017 season. Saturday was the first game-like action he had seen in some time. Conner is a true freshman out of Hattiesburg that has a decent chance to see action next fall, though likely in a limited capacity.
“I thought there were some flashes,” head coach Matt Luke said. “I thought Snoop Conner had several good runs and (Pennamon) showed some flashes. We want to continue to see him improve on his speed.”
Isaiah Woullard had 10 carries for 40 yards. He is undoubtedly the second running back behind Phillips and is coming off a pretty productive freshman campaign. But the Rebels are trying to stockpile depth across the board and running back is no exception. When Phillips missed the final two games of the 2018 season with an ankle injury, Ole Miss didn’t have much to offer behind Woullard. With Eric Swinney transferring out of the program, Conner and Pennamon’s progress is certainly something to monitor heading into the fall.
4. Tylan Knight is going to be used a lot
Knight has played some slot receiver this spring and Saturday reinforced why. The shifty sophomore caught five passes for 91 yards, including a touchdown from Grant Tisdale. Knight, who had a whirlwind of a freshman year that saw him play both offense and defense, seems like a player that will fit in Rodriguez’ offense well. At 5-foot-6, 173 pounds, Knight possesses a great deal of speed. He won’t be a run-between-the-tackles type of back, but could be utilized well on the perimeter in jet sweeps and other outside rushing concepts. The ability to catch passes only adds to his versatility.
“He is so competitive,” Rodriguez said. “He is a great athlete, plays so hard and is going to play a couple of different positions.”
Knight’s touchdown came on a fade route in the back of the end zone. He caught a couple of balls in the middle of the field and was pretty good running routes.
“I think Tylan is versatile and can do a lot of different things,” Luke said. “You will see him in the slot, and the backfield doing a number of different things. He is dynamic.”
5. If you are looking for a breakout player, it is Elijah Moore
Moore had a relatively quiet Grove Bowl, but still netted eight receptions for 79 yards. Moore has potential to be special in the slot with his quickness. Both Rodriguez and Luke called Moore the best player on the field in the spring. With a fairly significant overhaul taking place on the offensive line, Moore could serve as a bit of a crutch for Corral, someone he can get the football to quickly in space.
Corral said Moore is one of the smartest receivers he’s played with.
“Elijah is one of those guys who is so smart,” Corral said. “He really understands defenses and is one of the first guys I clicked with me. It just happened to be that way. He is a hard worker. That whole wide receiver room is.”
6. The offensive line is a work in progress
Ole Miss quarterbacks were sacked four times in the scrimmage, a statistic that should be taken with a grain of salt in a controlled environment littered with non-contact jerseys. But the fact of the matter is that the defense was still able to get consistent pressure on the quarterbacks without dialing up blitzes. Ole Miss loses a combined 127 starts off the offensive from a year ago, and with seven newcomers arriving in the fall, it is a short-handed group at the moment.
“Of those seven newcomers, a couple of them are going to have to get ready to play, if not be a starter,” Rodriguez said. “That is usually where inexperience and youth shows up the most. Even if you know what you are doing, you are not going to be strong enough to do it well. We have a couple of young linemen that are going to be good players, they just have to start living in the weight room.”
The cupboard isn’t completely bare here. Royce Newman, Ben Brown, Eli Johnson and senior Alex Givens are all guys that either have a great deal of experience or have been in the program a long time. It is depth that is the primary concern with this unit.
7. Tisdale edges Dent
The competition for backup quarterback job behind Corral is unfolding throughout the spring and summer. Kinkead Dent was 4-for-12 for 36 yards and Grant Tisdale was 3-for-5 for 37 yards with the touchdown pass to Knight.
Both did some good things and made some mistakes. Dent made a couple of nice throws and ran it six times for 50 yards. Tisdale only ran the ball twice. He looked a bit more polished than Dent, though it is likely splitting hairs at this juncture.
“I think we will know more in August,” Luke said. “Grant throwing the touchdown today, maybe he had a little bit of an edge. They both did some good things for their legs.”
The addition of John Rhys Plumlee this summer will likely change the dynamic of this competition as well.
8. The defense will be different, for better or for worse.
Mike MacIntyre has his work cut out for him with a defense that finished at the bottom of the FBS in most statistical categories. But a couple of things are abundantly clear after watching the spring game. This unit will be aligned correctly more often than not and the Rebels will likely be much better tacklers. Both of those things sound like elementary components to any college defense, but if you watched last year, it wasn’t always a given.
It is tough to gauge game-like performance from a defense when contact is limited. But they generated pressure on the quarterback, forced two turnovers and were good in the red zone. Ryder Anderson intercepted a ball near the goal line to prevent a score and C.J. Miller picked off an underthrown deep ball from Grant Restmeyer.
Will the results be better next year? Who knows. Will its play be more visually appealing? Most likely.