New Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin isn't promising a repeat of his near-instant turnaround at Florida Atlantic.
This time he inherits a Rebels team coming off a 4-8 season and playing in likely the most brutal gauntlet in college football, the Southeastern Conference Western Division. With the challenges of trying to field a football team during the COVID-19 pandemic added to the mix.
But Kiffin's hiring, and his track record with quarterbacks and offenses, brought some instant excitement to Ole Miss. His first Florida Atlantic team won its final 10 games and a Conference USA championship in 2017 after the Owls had won only nine collective games the previous three seasons.
“At FAU we were blessed with some really good talent, which for whatever reason hadn’t worked out before,” Kiffin said. "We were able to capitalize on that and win 11 games the first year. But this is more difficult.
“With the early signing day now, it’s hard. You’ve got to wait really two years to change your roster in your second year, because your first year is so hard because so many kids are gone when you get here.”
COVID-19 has made it harder, creating depth issues at positions like the secondary during practice and raising fears of similar problems once the season starts on Sept. 26 against No. 8 Florida. Missed practices in both the spring and fall are also especially hard on a first-year coaching staff trying to implement new systems.
Sophomores Matt Corral and John Rhys Plumlee appear to be once again engaged in a battle for the starting job, and picked up the intensity with pre-dawn quarterback meetings in August. Plumlee led the SEC in rushing yards per game last season while Corral put up better passing numbers.
“This is the hardest I’ve ever worked since I was trying to earn a scholarship,” Corral, who started four games to Plumlee’s eight, said.
The Rebels defense is hoping to make strides after several rough seasons. Ole Miss finished 11th in the SEC in scoring defense, 12th in total yards allowed and last against the pass in 2019. They must replace significant production on the front seven, likely including defensive end Sam Williams, who was indefinitely suspended. End Ryder Anderson has worked inside on the line. Leading tacklers Lakia Henry and Jacquez Jones both return at linebacker.
Cornerback Keidron Smith and safety Jon Haynes are back.
”We’ve just got athletic guys out there now that can run, fly to the football, and that’s what a defense is supposed to be,” running back Jerrion Ealy said.
Ealy (722 rushing yards, 20 catches) and Snoop Conner (512 yards) both are back after strong freshman seasons. Ealy and Conner each averaged better than 6 yards a carry. Ealy ran for six touchdowns and Conner five.
Kiffin said the secondary was hit hardest of the position groups by COVID-19 entering September, with the offensive line also missing three players for either a positive test or through contact tracing. Freshman Marc Britt moved from wide receiver to safety and was instantly working with the first team out of necessity.
“Our medical report is like a dictionary,” Kiffin, who didn’t release overall numbers, said.
Starting center Eli Johnson had already opted out of the season.
“It’s like picking out of a hat everyday, you don’t know who’s going to be there,” Kiffin said. “I get texts in the morning, these three people failed COVID tests and here’s some more in close contact. I don’t know. It’s hard to even figure out who our first and second units are because it’s changing so much.”
Ole Miss opens with Florida for the first time since 1948 after the shuffling. Gone are games with Baylor, Southeast Missouri State, Connecticut and Georgia Southern. The SEC games added were at Kentucky Oct. 3 and against South Carolina on Nov. 14.
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