4. A new D-line coach
Outside of Grant Heard’s wide receiver room, the deepest position group of the Hugh Freeze era has been the defensive line, and the Rebels find themselves needing to replace the man who coached that group for the last five years. Chris Kiffin, who was instrumental in the recruitment of Laremy Tunsil and helped develop the likes of Robert Nkemdiche, Marquis Haynes and Fadol Brown, left earlier this month to join his brother, Lane, as the defensive coordinator at Florida Atlantic. Freeze has already named a pair of new coordinators, a receivers coach (Heard is also gone) and a linebackers coach, but finding someone who can maintain consistency with the big fellas up front will be critical for a team that has to overhaul its run defense in 2017. One candidate to keep an eye on is North Carolina D-line coach Tray Scott, who had a stint as a grad assistant at Ole Miss during Freeze’s first season.
3. Five-star running back Cam Akers
Ole Miss’ 2017 recruiting class currently currently ranks 47th in the country and has just one commit rated higher than three stars. Landing Akers, the top prospect in Mississippi and the No. 1 running back recruit in the nation, would provide a jolt of momentum and help convince other recruits that they shouldn’t be scared off by the NCAA investigation.
Akers, who will make his announcement two days after Christmas, is also considering Alabama, LSU, Florida State, Georgia and Tennessee—all teams that run more than they throw. There’s fear that Freeze’s hiring of Air Raid disciple Phil Longo might scare Akers off, but Longo’s offenses at Sam Houston State weren’t actually that pass happy. Still, the best thing the Rebels have going for them is the emotional appeal of being the in-state school.
Ole Miss’ linebackers were absolutely atrocious this season, which is perhaps the biggest reason the Rebels ranked 77th in defensive S&P+ and 100th in points allowed per game. DeMarquis Gates will be back for his senior season and Detric Bing-Dukes showed flashes of competence in 2016, at least against the run, but those are about the only decent options Ole Miss has on the roster for next season. Finding bodies to man the second level will be McGriff’s most significant and pressing challenge.
The 2017 recruiting class currently only includes two linebackers: three-stars Josh Clarke and JUCO Brenden Williams, the latter of which inked during the early signing period last week. The good news is that McGriff is an ace recruiter, which increases the Rebels’ odds of closing on some key targets. Four-star Starkville native Willie Gay decommitted from Ole Miss in October but is still very much in play. Four-star Breon Dixon is thought to be a Rebel lean and keep an eye on three-star Wake Forest commit Jeffery Burley, who may reopen his recruitment now that Wake defensive coordinator Mike Elko appears headed to Notre Dame.
1. An end to this damn NCAA investigation.
It’s been over four years since Ole Miss fired women’s hoops coach Adrian Wiggins, touching off a sprawling, unprecedented NCAA investigation that snaked its way into the football program. It seems apparent by now that the folks in Indy are determined to stay as long as it takes to find something worth serious punishment.
The thing is, they’ve already imposed severe punishments by dragging the probe out this long. Almost nothing short of the death penalty could be as damaging to the program’s public image and recruiting ability. It might cost the Rebs a chance at the greatest running back to come through Mississippi in a generation. The probe almost certainly handicapped Freeze’s coaching searches this offseason, which resulted in a pair of under-the-radar coordinator hires. Cutting scholarships and imposing probation is damaging, but not nearly as damaging as the omnipresent threat of unknown punishment.
Freeze has loaded up on top-notch recruiters this offseason, but his program won’t be able to move forward until the NCAA breaks camp.