OXFORD, Miss. — When Mississippi’s offense takes the field for the first time in 2019, it will look quite different than it did in 2018.
And the newness is layered.
Ole Miss’ season opener Saturday at Memphis marks the Rebels’ first game with offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez. Redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Corral will make his first career start.
The Rebels also have three new starters on the offensive line and a trio of new starting wide receivers to replace the likes of second-round NFL draft picks A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf plus DaMarkus Lodge.
Although he’s only in his second year with the program, Corral has taken a leadership role in a young offense. He saw limited action in four games last season, which makes him the most experienced guy in the quarterbacks room by default as all three quarterbacks behind him on the depth chart are true freshmen.
“You look at all of the little things,” Luke said. “Obviously, he has gotten more comfortable in the system but I think it is the leadership — talking to the receivers, talking to the offensive line and feeling comfortable in that leadership role.”
Luke showed his faith in Corral by taking the quarterback to the Southeastern Conference Media Days event last month, an event underclassmen rarely attend.
Rodriguez spent spring practice and fall camp implementing his run-heavy spread system that predicates itself on controlling the pace of a game.
Tempo has been an emphasis in the team’s scrimmages as Ole Miss has tried to get the call from the sideline and line up on the ball as quickly as possible.
Ole Miss hopes to wear down opposing defenses, but that also means knowing when to slow down.
“Dictating the tempo doesn’t mean just going fast all the time,” Rodriguez said. “It’s changing the tempo up throughout the course of a game. You have to practice going fast because I think it is always harder to slow down than it is to speed up. From day one, we have tried to be able to go fast.”
Corral won’t have the luxury of throwing to a long, athletic red-zone target like Metcalf or a matchup nightmare in the slot like Brown.
Even without those second-round picks, Ole Miss boasts some interesting players on the perimeter. Sophomore slot receiver Elijah Moore totaled 36 catches for 398 yards last season. Senior Braylon Sanders is an established deep threat after averaging 16.9 yards per reception last year.
Perhaps the deepest position on the Rebels’ roster is running back. Junior-college transfer Snoop Conner plus true freshman and former five-star recruit Jerrion Ealy join a backfield that features senior Scottie Phillips and sophomore Isaiah Woullard.
Phillips rushed for 928 yards last season despite missing the Rebels’ final two games with an ankle injury. Phillips, Woullard, Conner and Ealy should enable the Rebels to attack opposing defenses a lot of different ways on the ground.
They’ll be facing a Memphis defense that allowed 31.9 points per game last season.
“We know Snoop very well,” Memphis coach Mike Norvell said. “He was committed here for a while. We got a chance to see him a little bit in their spring game. The Ealy kid was a five-star top recruit in the country. They have recruited at a high level. They are big up front. That will be a great challenge.”
The biggest question mark concerning the Rebels’ new-look offense is on the line. The lone senior lineman is right tackle Alex Givens, whose status for the Memphis game is uncertain after he underwent back surgery July 18 and missed all of fall camp.
That line must face an experienced Memphis front seven that helped the Tigers collect 37 sacks last year. For the Rebels to win Saturday, their inexperienced line must keep Corral from taking hits.
“I think any time you have a lot of new players, you find out in the first game,” Luke said. “I do think we have had a really good camp. We have had several good scrimmages. I thought the competition has been good and the understanding has been good.”