Ole Miss’ historic season has led to a slew of broken records, new championship aspirations, new opportunities for its central figures and a mass exodus of the superstars responsible for the Rebels’ rise in 2021.
Now a third-year coach Lane Kiffin is tasked with a tall order: to follow the first 10-win season in school history without Matt Coral, the quarterback who propelled the Rebels into the national spotlight, a defensive sack king (Sam Williams) and an employee roster and directory missing most of his most familiar names. However, perhaps the biggest concerns are the coaches and administrators who helped Kiffin quickly rebuild Ole Miss. Offensive Coordinator Jeff Leby left for Oklahoma shortly after season, co-defensive coordinator DJ Durkin took over play-calling duties at Texas A&M, strength coach Will Love parted ways for Oregon and matt lindseythe managing director of Kiffin, who oversaw the entire operation within the Rebels’ front office, left for the private sector.
Simply put, staff turnover is huge at Oxford and minimizing the impact is a mad dash. Seemingly, every morning after the school trip to the Sugar Bowl, news of fresh starts bubbled up online, prompting more questions about the future of the program and the Rebels’ ability to consistently repeat the success of 2021.
“These are very high paying positions between head coach and a general manager leaving your recruiting department,” the 247Sports recruiting analyst said. Cooper Petagna, former director of player personnel for Oregon and Washington. “It’s nothing to scoff at, but I also don’t know if it’s as bad as it could have been.”
Coaches strive for continuity in their programs, and when creatures of habit are made uncomfortable in a choppy sea of change, reaction time is everything. Kiffin apparently had successors in his back pocket after Lebby’s jump and Durkin’s departure. He hired his brother, Chris Kiffina man he worked with before, to coordinate the defense alongside a returning staff member Charlie Partridge. He also hired Charlie Weis Jr. away from South Florida as an offensive coordinator after being Kiffin’s play caller in the FAU for two seasons and one of Kiffin’s support staff at Alabama in 2015.
You could say that the familiarity between the Kiffin Bros. and Weis Jr. will lead to a smoother transition than usual. Their attacking and defensive philosophies, and the kind of players they bring in to fit those systems, are pretty much already in sync with the approach Lane Kiffin used in his first two seasons at head of the Rebels.
The biggest concern might lie in the back office.
As fans and media focus on recruiting and approaching spring training, strength coaches are slipping into the de facto head coaching role during the winter and summer months. They set schedules, run practices and train players. They instill discipline, maintain routines, and ultimately shape players’ bodies — physically and mentally — without a head coach blowing down their necks because of NCAA rules. The general manager, meanwhile, is there to communicate the head coach’s plan and stay the course.
That’s why Lindsey and Love’s replacement plan may be more important than the quick-hire strategy for new offensive and defensive coordinators.
“It’s more about trying to acclimate guys quickly to the day-to-day structure and organization of your program,” Petagna said. “And making sure the learning curve isn’t as steep as in other places. If you have the right people in place, that’s not too much of an issue.
At least 28 players on the Rebels’ 2021 roster have left the program since the last week of November through the transfer portal or early filing for the NFL Draft. This number does not include graduate seniors.
The Rebels’ top three running backs — nosy, Jerion Ealy and Henry Parrish, Jr.— left, along with two receivers of one of the strongest passing offenses in the nation. The team’s tackle leader, linebacker Luck Campbellalso entered the project.
Ole Miss countered masterfully in the transfer portal, adding eight players from Friday. The Rebels co-lead the country with five 4-star commitments and rank third nationally. Those numbers will soon improve if the coveted 5-star transfer quarterback Jaxson Dart commits to the Rebels, as predicted in 247Sports’ Crystal Ball. His decision – which is expected shortly – would also ease the stress of replacing Corral. Real Freshman Luc Altmyer appeared as a substitute for the Rebels last season. Altmyer threw for 174 yards and a touchdown after Corral was injured in the first quarter of a 21-7 loss to Baylor in the Sugar Bowl, a game that saw Altmyer show his toughness but also several growing pains on the volley .
Quarterbacking is paramount to the success of any offense, of course, but Kiffin’s entire operation hinges on incredible efficiency. Corral fit the mold and that’s why he’s projected as a first-round prospect this spring. Altmyer, however, may not be ready for full-time work just yet. According to the analyzes provided by Clark Brooks aka the SEC Stat Cat.
“Growing pains will occur and the odds are not in the Rebels’ favor that things will immediately turn rosy,” Brooks said of Altmyer. “The good thing at least is that the majority of his decision-making should be out of his hands.”
Dart would immediately change the Rebels’ outlook on offense.
As good as Corral was in 2021 — and he was outstanding as a Manning Award finalist and Heisman Trophy contender — a series of injuries throughout the season led to adjustments in the system. Kiffin relied heavily on run-pass option plays and play-action passes on 76% of Corral’s pass attempts. In a sense, the approach is a crutch to help the quarterback. RPOs are designed to attack a defense’s vulnerabilities, with the quarterback making quick decisions, and the Rebels’ reliance on those plays was 5% higher than the next SEC offense last season.
That philosophy works well when the quarterback is exceptional and able to improvise like Corral, “but when things go wrong, they hardly get a lot of calls,” Brooks said.
There were also some overlooked trends last season that could lead to more problems next fall. Ole Miss’s negative play rate ranked second in the SEC, and the passing rate and yards per play were average by conference standards. The Rebels also declined year over year in five similar categories, including explosive play rate and touchdown rate.
“The best and easiest way to get an explosive win is to be able to hit dingers beyond 20 yards down,” Brooks said. “Corral consistently shone stretching the court and securing the splash. Again, Ole Miss should be pretty much in structure. But until there’s a little more reassurance in their on-the-pitch offerings or confidence that they can continue to take care of business when things go down, I personally think the numbers drop a little more this fall.
What does it mean? As good as Corral was in 2021 despite injuries and offensive tweaks, next quarterback Ole Miss will have to do more in a system that doesn’t rely so heavily on RPO crutches and the play-action approach. Altmyer or Dart will also need more consistency from receivers.
Dart completed 61.9% of his passes for 1,353 yards and nine touchdowns to five interceptions as a rookie last season at USC, where he took over for Kedon Slovis as a two-time starter and also battled a minor knee injury. He could also provide more help to Oxford, with 4-star USC tight end Michael Trigg also considering a jump to the rebels.