Mississippi’s offense remains in good hands with the return of coach Lane Kiffin, coordinator Jeff Lebby and quarterback Matt Corral.
Now about that Rebels defense.
Ole Miss improved to a .500 team in Kiffin’s debut season with an offense that produced big numbers and a defense that yielded them. Linebacker Lakia Henry believes the defense will return better this season.
“Last year we weren’t really a productive defense and we really had the talent to be a productive defense,” Henry said. “We’re really playing with a chip on our shoulder this year.
“We’re going to have a lot to prove to everybody. Not just ourselves and the coaches but the whole world.”
Improved defensive play will be key for a team seeking its first winning record since 2015 after going 5-5 last season with an Outback Bowl win over Indiana.
The Rebels, who averaged a league record 562.4 yards in Southeastern Conference games, scored 48 points against Alabama and LSU only to lose both games. Returning defensive players like Henry, top pass rusher Sam Williams and safety A.J. Finley are hoping to help lead a resurgence.
Corral is back after leading the nation in total offense and still has threats like versatile tailback Jerrion Ealy. But he’ll be without star wide receiver Elijah Moore, a second-round NFL draft pick.
Kiffin’s Rebels already have a leg up on many teams even beyond having the majority of his starters return. He said every player and staffer has been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, and said it would be “irresponsible not to” for a college football player.
“You’re coming in, you’re near these guys, you’re impacting people’s ability to play the games on certain weekends and getting shut down,” Kiffin said. “This is not a normal job where you can just stay at home and zoom in on Saturday.”
With the departure of Heisman Trophy finalists Mac Jones and Kyle Trask among other top passers, Corral is one of the top returning quarterbacks in the SEC.
Statistically, he tops the list after averaging 384.3 yards per game as a sophomore. Corral said the added attention hasn’t changed anything.
"From a football standpoint it’s the same exact thing,” Corral said, “just more people are watching.”
He has some work to do after throwing 11 of his 14 interceptions in road games against LSU (5) and Arkansas (6).
The Rebels ranked next to last among the 127 FBS teams in total defense and 125th in pass defense. Then leading tackler Jacquez Jones transferred to Kentucky. Ole Miss will rely heavily on players like former Navy safety Jake Springer, who sat out last season, and Georgia transfer Otis Reese — who wasn’t ruled eligible until late last season — and a number of other newcomers.
The Rebels also are motivated to improve from last year.
“Nobody knows more than us as a defense statistically where we were last year,” co-defensive coordinator Chris Partridge said. “We wear that and we eat that and that motivates us every single day. And that’s the most important thing.”
Along with the freshmen and JUCO transfers, the Rebels also are hoping for big impacts from the transfer portal. Landing Maryland’s leading tackler, Chance Campbell, helps fill the void left by Jones at linebacker.
Summer addition Orlando Umana, a 26-game starter at Utah, takes over at center. That allows Ben Brown to shift back to guard.
The biggest void will be Moore, a first-team All-American who led the nation in receiving yards per game and catches per game before foregoing the final two games.
Tight end Kenny Yeboah is also gone. The top returning receivers are Jonathan Mingo and Dontario Drummond, who had 27 and 25 catches respectively. Braylon Sanders is back for a sixth year. Converted quarterback John Rhys Plumlee also could play a significant role.
The Rebels open against Louisville on Sept. 4 in Atlanta. They also have road games against defending national champion Alabama and Texas A&M.
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