Luke, Rebels Look Ahead to South Alabama

Ole Miss Football vs Georgia on September 24th, 2016 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, MS. – Photo by Joshua McCoy/Ole Miss Athletics

Ole Miss Turns Attention to South Alabama

By Brian Scott Rippee, OleMissSports.com

Matt Luke is unsure of exactly how he will be able to control his emotions Saturday leading up to his first career game as a head coach, but it is something that’s been on his mind for quite a while.

“This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time,” Luke said. “I’m just excited. I’m excited for the opportunity, excited for walking through The Grove and representing my university and putting a team on the field that everybody’s proud of. It’s going to be a challenge to control my emotions and be an efficient head coach. That’s going to be one of my biggest challenges, but I’m excited and prepared for it.”

Ole Miss opens up the season against South Alabama on Saturday in the first ever meeting between the two schools. Luke, at his first game week press conference, gave some hints as to what to look for on both sides of the football.

The two-deep depth chart is essentially set in most areas, but the free safety position is still somewhat unsettled. C.J. Moore is listed as the current starter, but former defensive back Jaylon Jones is making a push for playing time at the position.

“Jaylon looks so natural,” defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said. “His movement skills, his awareness, I mean I wish we had moved him earlier to have more time. But I like his ball skills. I like his attention to detail. You wish he was about 10 pounds heavier but other than that we have him in the right spot.”

McGriff noted he feels best about the defensive line and the depth the Rebels have acquired both inside and outside there, and that he will have his eyes on the linebackers and secondary to evaluate how those two units play. Ole Miss will be without linebacker Detric Bing-Dukes and safety Ken Webster for the first game. Luke mentioned Donta Evans as a guy who has impressed at linebacker this fall camp and has responded well in terms of trying to fill the void there.

“Donta Evans is the guy that’s emerged to me,” Luke said. “ At mike linebacker, he’s calling all the defense. I think that puts him in a leadership position. I really feel good about where he is.”

Luke noted that all of the full-time defensive coaches will be on the field for the game on Saturday. The staff isn’t scared of playing young players and Luke had a few in mind on the defensive side of the ball who will play on Saturday.

“I think you’ll see D.D. Bowie in there at corner. C.J. Miler will have a chance to play some at safety. Ryder Anderson and Breon Dixon, those are the guys who jump out to me off the top of my head,” Luke said.

Of the talk of playing young players, perhaps McGriff summed it up best.

“If you are looking for a redshirt, go buy one and hang it in your closet,” McGriff said.

On the offensive side of the ball, Saturday will be the long-awaited debut of Phil Longo’s fast-paced offensive system with Shea Patterson at the controls. Longo spent much of the offseason installing the new system and thinks this week is just about cleaning it up.

“The progress we wanted to make in the spring, we made,” Longo said. “The progress we wanted to make in August camp, we made. This week is about polishing. When they see the playlist for Saturday’s game as opposed to what they’ve been running in camp, it’s probably one-third the size. There are fewer pass concepts, fewer run concepts, fewer combinations.”

Ole Miss will be without one of its offensive weapons in sophomore tight end Dawson Knox, who is dealing with a foot injury. Knox is someone that has impressed in fall camp with his size and versatility. Longo didn’t mince words on the gravity of being without Knox.

“He’s the true hybrid that we have, a guy you’re going to get once in 10 years. I’m excited about him,” Longo said. “I think what the other four players do well, they do well. I don’t know if any one of those four players is as versatile as Dawson is, but that’s what makes him so special. We’ll use those guys more in the roles that they fit for us, instead of like Dawson Knox, who can do both.”

Longo said that eight guys will play on the offensive line, which shows the depth the Rebels have at that position that they have not in years past. It will be key in what Longo called “winning the war of attrition.”

Luke said he hopes to have Knox back by week three when Ole Miss travels to play Cal.

Perhaps the most interesting position to keep an eye on this weekend is at running back. Ole Miss gets Jordan Wilkins back this year, who is the clear-cut starter. But it is the four guys behind him that make this position interesting. Longo and Luke both mentioned the possibility of playing as many as four guys, which would give them a chance to see the options and versatility in skill sets each of them boasts.

“We’re going to play some guys,” Longo said. “Jordan is by far the No. 1 guy. That’s no disrespect to the rest of them; they’ve competed. D’Vaughn (Pennamon) has separated himself; he’s the true No. 2 right now. But all four have a role and assuming they’re healthy, I wouldn’t be surprised if you see all of them.”

A lot more will be known after Saturday, but for now Luke and his team are just excited about the idea of hitting someone other than themselves.

“First games you’re really focused on yourself and getting better and making sure you’re sound,” Luke said. “The first game is unpredictable, and you make your most mistakes in that first game. Focus on yourself and make sure you’re prepared.”

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