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This could be Ole Miss’ most explosive passing attack yet

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Hugh Freeze coached some big-play offenses, but this year’s group might take the cake.

Arkansas v Mississippi Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

As Bill Connelly’s in-depth season preview of Ole Miss football dropped last week, mention of the NCAA investigation and its potential aftereffects was inevitable. The more dominant theme, though, was that the Rebels will remain fun as hell, whether or not it shows up in the win totals.

That inevitable truth is rooted in a promising, top-heavy roster, with the most talented players concentrated at positions most critical for ripping off huge gains.

Offense coordinator Phil Longo’s first season in the FBS yielded perhaps the most explosive unit Oxford has ever seen, finishing fourth nationally in IsoPPP, which measures the magnitude of successful plays. The 2017 offense had 26 gains of 40 or more yards, good for ninth in the country. Hugh Freeze’s offenses combined for just 25 in the prior two seasons.

The same group that made that happen remains largely intact, including a proven quarterback, stacked receiving corps and stout offensive line. Given what this offense did with limited experience a season ago, you have to think another year together could result in something special.

Jordan Ta’amu has set himself up for a stellar 2018 season.

After being thrust into the starting role mid-season, Ta’amu wasted no time proving he could fit perfectly in Longo’s system, even with no prior FBS experience. The JUCO transfer had the highest yards per completion number in the SEC (9.7) and ranked second in both passer rating (164.5) and completion percentage (66.5). He landed a passing play of 20 yards or longer every 6.7 attempts, again tops in the conference.

His emergence as a running threat proved critical to opening up the passing game by creating a numbers advantage and forcing defenses to maintain a presence in the box. Among the team’s returning rushers, he leads with 6.3 yards per carry last season, and despite starting in only games, he ran the ball 16 more times than Shea Patterson did (4.3 yards per carry).

That running threat has a direct correlation to big plays through the air: according to Pro Football Focus, Ta’amu led the nation in yards per attempt off play-action passes.

Ta’amu has already shown he won’t shy away from going deep if there’s an opportunity. Last year’s Egg Bowl was strong evidence that an efficient defense could be countered with constant threats downfield. He certainly has plenty to throw to.

According to my analysis, these receivers are good at football.

A team’s returning production gets brought up a lot when previewing college football, and it’s arguably most relevant in the passing game. Even with the defection of Van Jefferson to Florida, this receiving corps returns 80 percent of last year’s receiving yards and 93 percent of receiving touchdowns—the highest marks any Ole Miss offense has enjoyed over the past five years.

Returning Production: Receiving Stats

Year Returning Yards Percent of Total Yards Returning Touchdowns Percent of Total Touchdowns
Year Returning Yards Percent of Total Yards Returning Touchdowns Percent of Total Touchdowns
2014 1927 52.30% 15 62.50%
2015 2744 79.80% 18 75%
2016 2356 54.20% 20 57.10%
2017 2178 57.60% 17 63%
2018 3155 80.10% 26 92.90%

Last season, only 13 Power 5 receivers saw at least 74 targets and hauled in 16 or more yards per catch. Three of them will start for Ole Miss in 2018: A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, and DaMarkus Lodge.

If you were to look at Brown’s catch rate of 79.8 percent with no prior knowledge, you’d assume he was a solid possession receiver used mostly in throws close to line of scrimmage. Instead, he ran a diverse route tree out of the slot and averaged 16.7 yards per catch. No one should be this insanely efficient and explosive at the same time. Only 10 of Brown’s 98 targets were contested, and nearly half of his yards came after contact, according to CFB Film Room. The guy is a nightmare in the open field.

Metcalf and Lodge are terrifying in their own right. They’re just not as awesome as Brown, as Bill C. put it. While they’re known mostly as all-or-nothing targets, they may take over some of Van Jefferson’s responsibilities (transferred to Florida) and boost their efficiency numbers.

The potential for big plays doesn’t stop after those three, either. Tight end Dawson Knox is already nationally recognized as a physical freak and is among just seven Power 5 players weighing 250 pounds or more who put up at least 13 yards per catch (30 or more targets) in 2017.

Longo’s offense in 2017 was centered around putting defenses in conflict and getting his athletes in space with the ball. A strong debut season suggests that experience and talent will give way to an even more prolific 2018.