OXFORD • It’s been roughly eight months since Ole Miss coach Matt Luke made two splashy coordinator hires.
The Rebels’ task of rebuilding both offense and defense set about then. The pace quickened when players got on the field for spring drills, and the urgency further intensified through August camp.
Ole Miss, 5-7 a year ago and rebuilding in the wake of NCAA sanctions, will get some sort of idea of return on investment when the season opens Saturday at Memphis.
The school is paying a combined $2 million annually for offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez ($900,000) and defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre ($1.1 million). Each won coach of the year recognition in different seasons, Rodriguez at Arizona and MacIntyre at Colorado.
Now the new – and Ole Miss fans hope, improved – product will be unveiled against a neighborhood rival with expectations for one of its best seasons ever.
“Any time you have a lot of new players you find out a lot in the first game,” Luke said. “I do think we had a really good camp. The competition has been good, and the understanding has been good.”
Memphis has two new coordinators also. Tigers coach Mike Norvell hired Adam Fuller from Marshall to be his lead defensive assistant and hired Texas Tech assistant Kevin Johns to coordinate the offense.
As both the Ole Miss and Memphis staffs prepare for new looks, one big difference is that Norvell’s successful offense has already been in place. MacIntyre and Ole Miss defensive coaches can reasonably assume that Memphis’ offense won’t change much in philosophy from last season.
For Ole Miss, there’s been abundant change on both sides of the ball, and Saturday will show, to some degree, how much the teaching has taken hold.
Rodriguez and MacIntyre faced different challenges as they worked through system installment.
Rodriguez has had to redirect players from a pass-first spread offense to one that will emphasize the run game more.
The Rebels were an up-tempo team under Phil Longo in 2018. If execution is what Rodriguez wants the Rebels will not only operate at a fast pace but will change the pace throughout the game.
One particular obstacle he’s faced has been the change in terminology, different ways to run similar plays.
“I’ve been really pleased from a schematic standpoint what we’ve been able to get in, particularly for the first year,” Rodriguez said.
He’s been careful to see that teaching fundamentals has not been lost while teaching installation.
“It’s been a challenge,” Rodriguez said.
MacIntyre has installed a 3-4 defense that has moved several players from a traditional defensive end role to outside linebacker.
His biggest challenge has been in making sure nose tackles Benito Jones and KD Hill understand new roles that require them to manage more than one gap.
As linebackers get their reads off the moves the nose tackle makes, a wrong step will have a trickle down effect for the defense.
“Early on, that was a little bit tougher. Now they completely understand the system. They completely understand that they fit off of each other. They’ve picked that up well,” MacIntyre said.
When the 3-4 is working at its best the outside linebackers are making big plays. Qaadir Shepherd, an end at Ole Miss last season, and Sam Williams, an end at Northeast Mississippi Community College last year, are the starters.
“Tackling in space is going to be a big deal. We’ve worked on it hard,” MacIntyre said. “I definitely believe that they’ve shown signs of being able to do it. I would not have run the 3-4 if those guys had not been able to do it like I think they can.”