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What exactly is Ole Miss sweating? Lane Kiffin has shown the ability to get it right

It’s time to Trust the Process.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Mississippi at Baylor John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Despite witnessing a 10-win regular reason for the first time in program history and a Sugar Bowl appearance, many Ole Miss fans spent the last month radiating huge OUR PETS HEADS ARE FALLING OFF energy. The list of grievances includes lamentations about recruiting, the lack of a transfer portal quarterback commitment, a lack of general transfer portal commitments, staffing changes, and a chain of islands in the Atlantic Ocean called the GOT DANG BAHAMAS.

As we head into the official postseason, I don’t know if the degree of lamentations is inspired by impatience or a worry that Kiffin doesn’t have the ability to address these grievances (or both!), but there are people out there hovering around DEFCON 3. If it’s impatience, let us start with a lesson from The Simpsons.

Players on the 2021 Ole Miss defense who did not transfer in December/early January:

  • Chance Campbell (February 2021)
  • Mark Robinson (June 2020; moved to defense spring of 2021)
  • Otis Reese (January 2020)
  • Jake Springer (June 2020)
  • Deane Leonard (July 2020)
  • Tavius Robinson (June 2020)

Campbell, Leonard, and Robinson were eligible to play right away. Robinson and Springer had to sit out a full year, while Reese, who should’ve played a full 2020 season, missed almost all of it because of NCAA HARRUMPH (thanks for the non-explanation, guardians of the game!). Had Robinson, Springer, and Reese transferred in the current setup, they would’ve played right away.

On offense, former tight end Kenny Yeboah didn’t transfer in until mid-January 2020, and Jahcour Pearson followed a similar path in 2021. This season’s starting center Orlando Umana didn’t arrive until July 2021, and in recent news, TCU’s Zach Evans committed on Thursday.

The point being: there’s a long way to go before the 2022 roster is finalized. You know, a marathon not a sprint and so on and so forth.

However, if the degree of lamentations is rooted in a belief that Kiffin, for whatever reason, can’t make reasonable choices when addressing these concerns, I’m not sure I follow that line of thinking. Since he’s been at Ole Miss, all he’s done is show us he can solve problems. Granted, in his unique way, but they get solved.

The aforementioned list of players showed his ability to inject immediate talent and contributors on both sides of the ball to a roster that desperately needed it. Of course, questions remain about developing depth with younger guys (high school signees) or having those guys assume more productive roles as starters, but we’ll likely get answers about that starting next season.

After spending exactly 10 (ten) games watching a defense that looked a lot like his predecessor’s as one of the worst in college football, he said, nope, we’re not doing that again. Instead of trying the “gotta work harder, have better eye discipline” approach and hope things improved, he chose to scrap the entire defensive system from 2020 and start over with the 3-2-6 (although they did dabble in the 3-2-6 at the end of the 2020 season).

It was a gamble, but it showed his understanding that continuing down the same path was likely to end in failure, and the move was worth the risk. His choice, combined with a talent upgrade, resulted in an abysmal defense becoming a group that carried Ole Miss the last month of the 2021 season.

Then, of course, there was the staff turnover after the 2020 season. Of the 10 on-field assistant coaches, four (40 percent) left or were fired. Deke Adams (defensive line), Randy Clements (offensive line), Joe Jon Finley (tight ends), and Blake Gideon (special teams) were all employed somewhere else in 2021.

Instead of seeing what someone like Corey Batoon was up to, Kiffin replaced them with Randall Joyner (defensive line), Jake Thornton (offensive line), John David Baker (tight ends; ANOTHER DOUBLE NAME TIGHT ENDS COACH), and Coleman Hutzler (special teams). All four hires were considered quality hires, with Joyner and Baker being listed in 247’s 30Under30 list (the site’s assessment of rising stars in coaching) and Hutzler being Broyles Award nominee in 2017.

In the current coaching cycle, he hired Charlie Weis Jr., who was his last offensive coordinator at FAU, to replace Jeff Lebby. While very much a “do what now” hire, it’s a pretty strong signal that Kiffin has been the boss of the offense for the last two years and wants someone to serve as a second in command (probably the reason Lebby wanted out), which means nothing really changes on offense for Ole Miss.

Would I have preferred Lebby to hang around or more of a “name” guy to get hired? You bet! But based on what Kiffin appears to want in an offensive coordinator, those weren’t realistic options.

However, people in the coaching profession who have worked with Weis speak highly of him. I’m not sure how much stock you can put in his time at South Florida as offensive coordinator because South Florida was hot garbage from a talent perspective, but it was two years of him getting independent experience, which could help him bring additional perspective.

Outgoing strength and conditioning coach Wilson Love is likely to be replaced with Nick Savage, who held the same position at Florida and Mississippi State and would be about as strong of a replacement as one could want. The only remaining unfilled spot on the staff is defensive coordinator, as D.J. Durkin left to manage one of Jimbo Fisher’s ranches.

Rumors are swirling, as rumors tend to do, that current co-defensive coordinator Chris Partridge will assume the solo defensive coordinator title. Although he lacks Durkin’s experience as being THE GUY, the move would provide continuity. It also means a first-time defensive coordinator would be coaching within the confines of the established 3-2-6 and not implementing his own system, which, as we know from experience, doesn’t always go well.

/cut to image of Crime Dog

/Platoon score starts playing

It’s entirely possible another assistant or two moves on, but Kiffin’s track record so far suggests finding a quality replacement or, if you don’t agree with “quality,” a replacement that fits what he wants shouldn’t be an issue.

When Kiffin took over in December 2019, the list of grievances was far more worrisome than the current one. The 2019 list included all of the grievances and hollerin’ one might find with a program that spent the previous four seasons winning 8 total SEC games and finishing none of those seasons with more wins than losses.

Yet, with this more challenging list, Kiffin managed to set a school record for regular season wins and go to back-to-back bowl games by the time Year 2 of the rebuild was over. That, friends, is somewhat ahead of schedule. In fact, in the last two seasons, Kiffin has won more SEC games (10) than Ole Miss won from 2016-2019.

Obviously, things can blow up at any moment because [gestures at the unending trail of carcasses related to Ole Miss sports], but Kiffin has spent two years pressing all the right buttons. Even with questions to be answered, the DEFCON worries specifically about his choices don’t make sense.