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Five important storylines as Ole Miss kicks off spring football

There’s lots more going on than a quarterback battle...

Ole Miss v LSU Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

As Lane Kiffin enters his fourth season at the helm of Ole Miss football, the program has become known for major off-season overhauls just as much as for aggressive fourth-down calls on offense.

During the 2021-2022 offseason, the Rebs had to replace offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby and defensive coordinator DJ Durkin, NFL-bound QB Matt Corral, the top three wide receivers in yardage, the top three running backs in yardage, the program’s single-season sack leader in Sam Williams, two NFL linebackers in Chance Campbell and Mark Robinson, two NFL defensive backs in Deane Leonard and Jaylon Jones, running backs coach Kevin Smith, cornerbacks coach Terrell Buckley, and major defensive contributors Jake Springer, Keidron Smith, Lakia Henry, and Tylan Knight.

This offseason, Kiffin has replaced defensive coordinators Chris Partridge and Maurice Crum, running backs coach Marquel Blackwell, offensive line coach Jake Thornton, cornerbacks coach Sam Carter, and special teams coach Marty Biagi, and must also several NFL-bound players including RB Zach Evans, WR Malik Heath, WR Jonathan Mingo, OL Nick Broeker, and DE Tavius Robinson, major portal departures CB Davison Igbinosun, S Tysheem Johnson, and LB Austin Keys, and major senior contributors including DT KD Hill, LB Troy Brown, and safeties Otis Reese and AJ Finley.

In short, continuity is not something we’re going to see out of Lane Kiffin’s program anytime soon. So with all these changes taking place over the offseason, let’s take a look at some of the top stories to watch as the Rebels kick off Spring football practices tomorrow, March 21.

  1. Pete Golding’s new-look defense: Lane Kiffin’s addition of Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding was one of the biggest assistant coach hires in all of college football over the offseason. Golding will not only overhaul the Rebel defense, but the program’s recruiting strategy as well. And while the 2024 recruiting cycle is just getting warmed up, Ole Miss fans will get their first look at Golding’s defense during Spring practice. It’s not currently known whether Ole Miss will line up in a 4-2-5, a 3-4, or a combination and/or hybrid of the two schemes. Spring football will give us a glimpse of Golding’s defensive scheme, as well as an early look at which Rebel defenders might thrive under new leadership.
  2. A revamped wide receiver unit: in 2022, Malik Heath and Jonathan Mingo were the main two targets for Jaxson Dart, and after that, things got a little dicey. Jordan Watkins and Dayton Wade both popped at times, but Jaylon Robinson was a total bust, no one else stepped up, and the passing offense as a whole disappeared for long stretches. Heading into 2023, Spring practices will provide a first look at a totally overhauled group of receiving targets. Louisiana Tech transfer Tre Harris brings with him two years of highlight catches, and seems like a solid bet to step in as a starter on the outside. Texas A&M transfer Chris Marshall, a former five-star, has crazy physical tools, but lacks experience. Whether or not Harris and Marshall can step in as adequate replacements for Mingo and Heath will be a key factor in the Rebels’ success in 2023. Watkins and Wade also return, and are the top options to contribute from the slot position, while former Mizzou transfer Jalen Knox, former four-star Bralon Brown, and incoming freshman superstar Ayden Williams will also look to crack the rotation.
  3. A battle at tight end: One of the Rebels’ most prized transfer portal acquisitions, former Memphis tight end Caden Prieskorn looks to be a plug-and-play starter (and probably a pretty good one), but former Southern Cal transfer Michael Trigg still has him beat in terms of pure athleticism. After a 2022 season marred by injury, inconsistency, and a brief suspension, the clock is ticking on Trigg to step up and contribute. If he does, and if Prieskorn comes in roughly as-advertised, Ole Miss will have one of the best 1-2 combos at tight end in the country.
  4. A QB battle that seemingly no one asked for: heading into this offseason, I was extremely excited about the potential for Jaxson Dart to take a big step forward after his first year leading the Rebel offense. Dart racked up nearly 3,000 yards passing at a 62.4% completion rate, was extremely effective as a runner at times, and got better and better at protecting the ball as the season wore on. Dart seemed set for a massive junior campaign. Then, Lane Kiffin did something kind of weird! Dart was set to be the only scholarship QB on the Ole Miss roster heading into the spring after the defection of long-time commitment Marcel Reed, so Kiffin obviously needed to bring in some more talent at the position. Then, after securing a commitment from LSU transfer quarterback Walker Howard, Kiffin also brought in Oklahoma State QB Spencer Sanders, a four-year starter for the Cowboys. Sanders’ numbers don’t compare favorably to Dart’s, but his experience and athleticism are definitely enough to push for a bid to unseat Dart as the Rebel starter. One minor detail though: Sanders has a nagging shoulder injury, and hasn’t been throwing in offseason training. If he can’t give it a go this Spring, then all the hoopla about Sanders pushing Dart might have been for nothing. I don’t see him unseating the Rebel QB without a really solid Spring.
  5. A revamped secondary: and by revamped, I might mean “worse.” The Rebels lost cornerbacks Davison Igbinosun, Miles Battle (both of whom started multiple games) and Kyndrich Breedlove, and starting safeties Otis Reese, AJ Finley, and Tysheem Johnson this offseason. They return top cornerback Deantre Prince, Markevious Brown, who was the #4 cornerback in 2022, and safeties Isheem Young, Ladarius Tennison, and Trey Washington. Joining the team are Miami Ohio corner John Saunders, Georgia Tech corner Zamari Walton, and freshman four-star cornerback Braxton Myers. While those three are really solid additions, the overall incoming talent does not appear to measure up to the outgoing talent. While it helps that there should be one fewer DB on the field in Pete Golding’s new scheme (if not two fewer), the Rebels appear to lack a ballhawk safety, as Young, Tennison, and Washington are all stronger against the run.