Since the news of the expanded notice of allegations and self-imposed bowl ban broke on Wednesday, a rallying cry has arisen among Ole Miss players and coaches on social media: #WeStillHere.
The motivational hashtag appears to simply be an acknowledgement of the Rebels’ continued existence as a football program, and as the dreaded Committee of Infractions hearing draws closer, perhaps we’ll have to edit it to #WeStillHereForNow. Still, something about D.K. Metcalf proclaiming that he’s still here rings true. He’s right. There will be no bowl game and there’s no guarantee that Hugh Freeze will be leading the team, but Metcalf and the Rebels still have 12 games to play next season. Looking at the 2017 roster suggests they have the potential to be pretty damn good.
Let’s not forget that this team is stocked with talent. Sure, the 2017 recruiting class was hampered by the NCAA investigation (although it still finished at a respectable No. 30 nationally), but the Rebels signed the No. 15, No. 17, and No. 5 recruiting classes in the three years previous. NCAA sanctions could lead to transfers (particularly if it becomes a multi-year bowl ban), but until that happens, this is still one of the more talented rosters in the country.
That begins with former No. 1 QB prospect Shea Patterson, who reassured nervous fans last week that he’s committed to staying in Oxford. He showed promise after taking over for Chad Kelly during the final three games of 2016, throwing six touchdowns and twice eclipsing 300 yards. At times, Patterson appeared a bit skittish as defensive pressure forced him to abandon the pocket early, but ultimately his mobility and improvisational ability should prove to be assets. If Patterson can work with coaches this off-season to improve his awareness, he should be among the top signal-callers in the SEC in 2017.
Patterson returns to lead an offense that combines explosive young talent with several steady veteran contributors. The receiver corps is straight-up scary; a five-wide formation employing Van Jefferson, A.J. Brown, DaMarkus Lodge, D.K. Metcalf, and Tre Nixon is the type of lineup that keeps SEC defensive coordinators up at night. All five of those guys stand taller than 6 feet, and each possesses a unique skill-set that should allow for some wide-open formations in new offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s offense. With his Air Raid background, it’s no secret that Longo wants to throw the ball and score quickly, and the Rebels have the wide receivers to do just that.
But it’s Longo’s commitment to the ground game that could really set the 2017 offense apart from previous units. Longo, whose 2014 and 2015 Sam Houston State teams ran the ball 59 percent of the time, says he wants to “run the ball downhill.” Sure, we’ve heard Ole Miss coaches say that before, but Longo has a track record of rushing efficiency to back it up.
He also has a deep and talented offensive line anchored by the former No. 1 tackle prospect in the country, Greg Little. Four of last year’s starters—Sean Rawlings, Rod Taylor, Javon Patterson and Jordan Sims—could make this the most productive blocking unit of the Freeze era. And even after missing super recruit Cam Akers, the running back stable has plenty of promise. Jordan Wilkins returns after being held out last season for an academic snafu, Eric Swinney should finally be healthy enough to show off his explosiveness and former four-star D’Vaughn Pennamon looks poised to take a big step forward. If the returning stable of backs can keep defenses off-balance enough to set up the pass, it should do wonders in creating more consistency on offense.
The defensive side of the ball was obviously a weakness for the Rebel’s in the 2016, but the hiring of former Auburn co-defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff as defensive coordinator provides hope for rapid improvement. It helps his cause that the Rebels’ 2017 signing class consists of five new linebackers to shore up the unit’s weakest position. The Rebels finished 119th in the country last season in LB Havoc Rate, an advanced statistic that measures the percentage of plays in which a linebacker either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass. Guys like Breon Dixon and Mohamed Sanogo possess the kind of dynamic athleticism necessary to make those type of impact plays. Look for them to contribute early.
It’s always difficult to generate excitement coming off of a 5-7 season, and a self-imposed bowl along with lingering uncertainty about future NCAA punishments makes it even tougher for Rebel fans to muster enthusiasm for the future. But there is serious talent on this team. Let’s not forget, by the way, that Ole Miss always seems to embrace the unexpected. Nothing would embody the WAOM mantra more than self-imposing a bowl ban and promptly going undefeated. And let’s face it, watching a pissed-off Rebel squad tear through the SEC on a revenge tour would be pretty fun.