OXFORD • With 30 days until Matt Luke takes his Ole Miss team on the road as an underdog, the most important aspect of August camp will be mental, not physical.
Luke wants a veteran defense that’s been statistically challenged the last two years to believe in itself, in new coordinator Mike MacIntyre and in his 3-4 scheme.
He wants young players competing for key roles across the offense to find a comfort zone quickly.
Ready to rumble
Luke, entering his third season as coach, says Rebels of all ages and experience levels are eager to strap it on.
“It’s very exciting. You can feel the energy with the looks on the kids’ faces,” he said.
Ole Miss plays at Memphis on Aug. 31. The Tigers, picked by some to represent the Group of Five conferences in a New Year’s Six bowl game, are a six-point favorite at the Liberty Bowl according to oddsmakers.
Defensively, eight starters return for Ole Miss, but some of these players have been part of a unit that ranked No. 115 in total defense in 2017, No. 121 last year.
The Rebels ranked No. 100 or lower in every major statistical category in last year’s 5-7 season.
This season’s unit could start three junior college transfers.
“I know the Ole Miss defense, if you go three years back they were a perfect defense. If you go one year or two years back they kind of a struggled,” juco transfer linebacker Lakia Henry said. “We need to get back to the winning defense that we were three to four years ago.”
Henry, rated the nation’s No. 1 juco inside linebacker, says the coaching staff has helped instill confidence in the players.
“They keep us really motivated. They believe in us a lot. I’ve never had a coach tell me they believe in us like that. I feel like that’s big.”
Coaches will try to perfect their schemes over the next month.
Offensively that means a redshirt freshman quarterback at the wheel of the new run-based spread option of Rich Rodriguez.
He’s far from the youngest player who will be asked to fill a key role. True freshmen will compete for playing time on the offensive line, at wide receiver and running back.
Only three starters return from an offense that could hit a big play at any given time but struggled in the red zone. One of those, senior right tackle Alex Givens, is recovering from mid-July back surgery and is questionable for the Memphis game.
Luke says the best way to get the freshmen ready is to put them in as many game-type situations as possible, scrimmages inside the stadium with the coaches on the sideline.
For the next month he hopes to keep spirits high and injury reports low.
“It starts with building an unselfish team, trying to be mentally and physically tough, and being in great shape,” he said. “Being a disciplined football team … being young and somewhat inexperienced, especially on offense, that will be very important.”