HOOVER, Ala. • The weight of trying to get young players ready doesn’t seem as heavy with the weight of the NCAA investigation now behind Ole Miss.
Rebels coach Matt Luke spoke of a different vibe around the program – which looks more like his program – while addressing the crowd in the main ballroom at SEC Media Days on Tuesday morning.
Luke is 11-13 at his alma mater as he enters his third season. He was rushed into the job just days after this event in 2017 when former coach Hugh Freeze was fired.
This past off-season, Luke further stamped the program as his by hiring coordinators Rich Rodriguez and Mike MacIntyre, both of them former head coaches at multiple stops.
“There’s a lot of excitement in our building right now for a lot of different reasons,” Luke said. “We had a very productive and very busy off-season.”
In addition to the coordinators Luke added new assistants in tight ends coach Calvin Magee, inside linebackers coach Jeff Koonz and outside linebackers coach Tyrone Nix, once the defensive coordinator at Ole Miss under former coach Houston Nutt.
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In all, five of the 10 current assistant coaches were not on the staff last season.
Part of the excitement comes from the free and clear chance to compete for a bowl game. A year ago the Rebels were in the midst of an unsuccessful appeal of the second year of the NCAA’s two-year bowl ban.
“It’s awesome. Coach Luke has instilled in us to play for each other and to play for something bigger than ourselves. Now with a bowl game, it’s scary for other teams. We have a lot more incentive,” senior offensive tackle Alex Givens said. “Playing for a bowl game brings a huge spark to our team. It’s a great vibe around the locker room.”
A roster with 84 scholarships – just one under the maximum number allowed – will help the Rebels in pursuit of that goal.
So will a fresh slate on the health front as several key players – most notably junior cornerback Jaylon Jones – return from major injuries.
Jones, the Rebels’ best defensive back last year, went down with a torn ACL in the season opener. He’s fully healed, Luke said.
Ole Miss returns eight defensive starters as MacIntyre installs a new 3-4 scheme.
Three starters return on offense as Rodriguez installs a run-based spread option.
“I would say it’s a little more up-tempo than last year,” Givens said. “We’ve been doing a lot of conditioning to get ready for it.”
The Rebels haven’t played in a bowl game since defeating Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl in 2015. They were not under a bowl ban in 2016 but failed to qualify at 5-7.
“It wasn’t too long ago that this program was competing for championships. This young team has to go out and compete. They’ve got to grow,” Luke said.
“The immediate goal is to get this team back to the postseason … then start getting back in the hunt for winning championships.”