SEC Media Days: Luke optimistic about young Ole Miss team

Story by SportsTalk Mississippi’s Ole Miss Beat Reporter Brian Scott Rippee

HOOVER, ALABAMA — One thing is abundantly clear for Ole Miss heading into the 2019 season. It is a young football team. Matt Luke noted that the Rebels may be the only program in the country with four freshmen quarterbacks.

 The youth, coupled within a pair of new coordinators, ripen the conditions for growing pains, particularly early in the season as two new systems take shape and inexperienced players accumulate snaps. But Ole Miss really has no time for that. The first four games of the season will largely determine the team’s trajectory, beginning with Memphis on August 31.

“Opening with an opponent like Memphis is very similar to last year with Texas Tech,” head coach Matt Luke said. “The guys know they are preparing for a very good football team. There is a sense of urgency there in fall camp practices.”

That game, followed by Arkansas, Southeastern Louisiana and Cal, are all winnable games for Ole Miss. They are also very losable. The Rebels could very well head into Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 28 with a 4-0 record. They could also be 1-3. If the former is the case, Ole Miss will have a good opportunity to head to its first bowl game since the 2016 Sugar Bowl and generate real momentum for a program decimated by a half-decade long NCAA investigation. If the latter is the case, the Rebels had better brace for disaster because the back half of its schedule is daunting.

“I think as a coach you’d like to have several games before you get into your first conference game especially with a young football team,” Luke said.”But if you look at the flip side of that, you see guys that have a sense of urgency to get prepared.”

— Dual-sport athlete John Rhys Plumlee will work solely at quarterback this season, Luke said. There was thought in the spring Plumlee could contribute on the defensive side of the football in the secondary but that will not be the case. What does that tell you? Well, the obvious fact that Ole Miss is unproven at quarterback — Matt Corral included — but also behind Corral. Plumlee didn’t go through spring football. Fellow freshmen Kinkead Dent and Grant Tisdale did. Both showed flashes in the spring game, but also seemed overwhelmed at times. Plumlee’s ability and willingness to run makes him an enticing option at backup quarterback in Rich Rodriguez’s system, and at least for the immediate future, his sole focus will be at signal-caller.

— Ole Miss has been fortunate the last three years to have a veteran offensive line with a good bit of depth. That will not necessarily be the case this year as the team loses 127 combined starts on the offensive line from a year ago. There is experience on the surface. Senior Alex Givens is the undisputed veteran at right tackle. He could play some left tackle too. Eli Johnson, Royce Newman, Ben Brown and Bryce Mathews all have varying amounts of experience and have been in the program multiple years. But behind the starting five, the experience completely evaporates. Ole Miss’ second-team offensive line as it currently stands: RT Hamilton Hall, RG Chandler Tuitt, C Samuel Plash, LG Jalen Cunningham, LT Michael Howard.

Tuitt is the only one of those five that has participated in a game other than Howard, who is a newly-converted tight end. Hall and Cunningham are redshirt freshmen, and Plash is a sophomore that came into the program as a walk-on. Givens is the last man standing from the older, experienced lines the Rebels boasted in 2017 and 2018. He admitted it has been a much different offseason with a younger position group. Givens’ role has evolved into being a mentor for some of the younger linemen. Those freshmen are going to be thrust into the spotlight at some point this year and Givens feels a responsibility to have them game ready.

“Just being help teach those younger guys different things like techniques they haven’t seen in high school,” Givens said. “It has been a fun time and a good job for me.”

— There will be a slight change to the college overtime rules this year. SEC Director of Officials Steve Shaw noted on Tuesday that if a game reaches a fifth overtime, each team will move directly to a two-point try rather than playing out a full drive from the 25-yard line. Shaw pointed to the seven overtime game between LSU and Texas A&M last year as a reason for the rule change, citing that 255 plays in a football game is too long.

— The NCAA-induced haze clouding Luke’s program has dissipated. The team senses that. This year has a different feel. There’s more depth. The Rebels are back to a full allotment of scholarships. It will be an uphill climb for a young football team but Luke is optimistic about Ole Miss’ chances.

“There’s a feeling of normalcy, being able to sign 31 guys and getting back to 85 scholarships,” Luke said. “Having the opportunity to go compete to get to the postseason, I think all those things provide an energy and a confidence level around our building, almost a sense of normalcy that we can just go play football, so I’m excited about that.”