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Five storylines to watch as Ole Miss football opens fall camp this week

It all starts Monday.

Joshua McCoy/Ole Miss Athletics

Ole Miss football opens fall camp on Monday afternoon with a new coaching staff led by Lane Kiffin, the unprecedented challenge of navigating a global pandemic, and fitting a near full offseason into a condensed preseason, all before facing a grueling conference-only schedule. Nobody said that the first year under new leadership would be easy, but 2020 has presented a set of circumstance that nobody could have predicted.

With just over a month to prepare for the to-be-announced week one opponent on September 26, there is a lot to figure out, and from an outsider’s perspective, more questions than answers. Here are the five big things to watch throughout camp:

Can Ole Miss Athletics keep COVID-19 under control?

This potential problem looms so large, it requires its own article.

What will the offense look like?

According to Kiffin, offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby will be calling the plays in 2020. That’s just about all we know about the offense entering fall camp. The Rebels ran the ball 62 percent of the time on average in 2019. John Rhys Plumlee broke all kinds of rushing records, Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner went brazy as freshmen, and the future of the backfield on the ground is secure entering the fall.

However, what Ole Miss gained from its rushing attack, it lacked throwing the ball. Plumlee and Matt Corral each completed less than 60 percent of their passes and the two combined for less than 2,500 total yards. On the other hand, under Lebby last season, Central Florida threw for over 4,000 yards on about a 60 percent completion clip.

We have a pretty good idea of what a Lebby-run offense would look like, but that system is sure to change based on the personnel in Oxford and with Kiffin’s influence. It will be interesting to see how much of what worked last season is kept on the play cards, and if the short offseason makes for a modified introduction to the true desired system.

Who is going to take the snap and who will catch the ball?

Once the offense is in place from a logistics standpoint, it needs the players to execute on the field. That starts with the quarterback, a position with a serious battle to come.

Plumlee is the clear incumbent after starting the majority of games in 2019 and breaking the Ole Miss freshman records with 1,023 yards rushing and 16 total touchdowns. He finished eighth in the country with 113.7 rushing yards per game and diced opposing defenses with his insane speed and quick cuts. He fits the option portion of a Lebby and Kiffin offense to a tee, and if his arm was even remotely up to SEC standard, there would be no debate. With that being said, Kiffin took backup running back turned starting quarterback Blake Sims to a national championship at Alabama.

Corral was supposed to be the next great Rebel signal caller entering 2019. He struggled a little bit out of the gate, got injured and lost the starting spot, and never found his footing during the remainder of the season. That isn’t to say he’s bad. In fact, the former four-star Southern California kid is very good. He has a strong arm and can provide enough of a ground threat to run the option or escape pressure on a keeper. If Kiffin and Lebby are looking for the loose, unrefined gunslinger to make plays happen and throw the ball deep, Corral will be that guy.

Grant Tisdale is the third, and perhaps most intriguing option of the bunch. He hasn’t seen much time on the FBS level, but is 2-for-2 with a touchdown. The Allen, Tx. native entered the transfer portal midseason, but chose to return to Ole Miss when Kiffin was announced as the head coach. He may end up being the most complete quarterback of the bunch from a raw talent standpoint. Tisdale’s cannon is equal to, if not greater than Corral’s (which is in turn greater than Plumlee’s), and for someone of his stature, he is fairly elusive. Don’t be surprised if Tisdale makes some noise this fall and comes out on top, or near the top of the depth chart.

Kade Renfro is the wildcard here. He is the first quarterback recruit of the Kiffin era and both the head coach and Lebby are high on him. At 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, his frame could use some weight and his experience at the FBS level is nonexistent, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t slide his way into a backup role, likened to USC’s Kedon Slovis, where the future is waiting in the wings and is thrust into the starting role after an injury. More than likely, Renfro will either redshirt in 2020 or see his name behind the other three listed returners, but the coaching staff is high on his potential.

After the person throwing the ball is decided, someone will need to step up on the receiving end. Elijah Moore is the clear-cut top receiver and has a chance to be one of the best in the nation if the offense throws his way and the quarterback can get him the ball. Beyond the Biletnikoff Award Watchlist target, the receiving core is full of talent and depth but lacks rank or sure-fire confidence.

Most of the uncertainty comes because Rich Rodriguez and Matt Luke didn’t pass, so a No. 2 option didn’t have the opportunity to step up, but part comes from underwhelming play. Dontario Drummond, Braylon Sanders, Miles Battle, Jonathan Mingo, Jadon Jackson, Demarcus Gregory and Dannis Jackson caught a combined 55 passes last year. The pecking order will need to be established in fall camp.

How will the defense rebuild its line in a new system?

Josiah Coatney, Austrian Robinson, Benito Jones and Qaadir Sheppard all graduated in the spring, and Charles Wiley, who had a clear path to a starting role, transferred to UTSA. To make matters more complicated, Sam Williams looked ready to dominate SEC offenses on the edge and as an outside linebacker but is suspended from the team with his return unknown. D.J. Durkin and Chris Partridge take over as co-defensive coordinators in 2020, but have a lot of holes to fill on the defensive line and at outside linebacker. Durkin, who will be the Xs and Os of the defense, likes to use multiple fronts and create confusion with constant rotations of schemes and personnel. He will need to take a long, hard look at his guys during fall camp to see if he can stick with his intended system, or if he is forced to dumb it down based on the depth (or lack thereof) in talent he inherits.

The defensive line will need to see names like Ryder Anderson, Tariqious Tisdale, Quentin Bivens, Patrick Lucas Jr. and freshman Demon Clowney take on bigger roles than perhaps was to be expected of them, and dominate in them. As Durkin moves back and forth from three-man and four-man fronts in fall camp, he will need to make some hard decisions at each position surrounding how to get the most out of his first-year players and less-experienced veterans.

How much expectation can be placed on this team?

Hiring Kiffin brought immediate hype to the Ole Miss football program. “The future is here,” “we got our coach,” “Sugar Bowl bound,” yeah, I get it. It was a big move, and it has paid dividends for the culture already. He brought in a great staff and has been patient in doing things his way. That’s all great, but 2020 is going to be brutal.

A conference-only schedule is a week-in and week-out battle that will take a toll on a team with a fair amount of youth and a lot to figure out. And that is before you factor in the strange first year it has been for Kiffin. This season can and should be considered “year 0”.

The model typically goes something like: lose big in year one, lose little in year two, win little in year three, win big in year four. Throw that thinking out of the window.

Look at the program holistically, and understand that if this season only sees two wins, that’s okay. It’s important to manage expectations and the fall camp will tell a lot about what can be forecast for Ole Miss in 2020.