By BILL BURRUS
In less than 30 days, Matt Luke takes his Ole Miss team on the road as an underdog.
That means the most important aspect of August camp will be mental, not physical. The team started preseason camp on Friday. And Luke wants a veteran defense that’s been statistically challenged the last two years to believe in itself, in new coordinator Mike MacIntyre and in his 3-4 scheme.
He wants young players competing for key roles across the offense to find a comfort zone quickly.
Luke, entering his third season as coach, says Rebels of all ages and experience levels are eager to strap it on.
“It’s very exciting. You can feel the energy with the looks on the kids’ faces,” he said.
Ole Miss plays at Memphis on Aug. 31. The Tigers, picked by some to represent the Group of Five conferences in a New Year’s Six bowl game, are a six-point favorite at the Liberty Bowl according to oddsmakers.
Defensively, eight starters return for Ole Miss, but some of these players have been part of a unit that ranked No. 115 in total defense in 2017, No. 121 last year.
The Rebels ranked No. 100 or lower in every major statistical category in last year’s 5-7 season.
This season’s unit could start three junior college transfers.
“I know the Ole Miss defense, if you go three years back they were a perfect defense. If you go one year or two years back they kind of a struggled,” juco transfer linebacker Lakia Henry said. “We need to get back to the winning defense that we were three to four years ago.”
Ole Miss could be one of the Southeastern Conference’s more intriguing teams this fall, mainly because there’s so much uncertainty around the roster and how the new coordinators might use the young talent. Not much is expected: The Rebels were picked to finish sixth out of seven teams in the SEC Western Division in the media poll that was released in July.
Youth is certainly a concern, but coaches and players say it’s not necessarily a bad thing. “I don’t have to worry about bad habits,” new offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez said. “Because they don’t have any habits.”
Ole Miss is once again eligible for the postseason after serving a two-year ban due to NCAA rules violations.