SEC Media Days 2021: Lane Kiffin has already turned Ole Miss into one of the nation’s most dangerous teams
HOOVER, Ala. — Lane Kiffin’s first year as coach at Ole Miss was a roller coaster of epic proportions. The offense — something Kiffin has made a career out of — racked up an SEC-best 555.5 yards per game. It produced 18 plays of 40 or more yards — three behind Alabama, which played three more games that the Rebels. The Rebels’ defense didn’t exactly hold up its end of the bargain, though. It gave up a league-worst 519 yards per game which made every single one of those offensive yards a necessity.
Translation: Ole Miss is the most volatile team in the country, which will make them must-see TV in 2021.
Quarterback Matt Corral is fully capable of leading his team up and down the field at will. The SEC’s leading passer from last season, has returned to lead an offense that is loaded with weapons. The team’s top five rushers from last season return, including starter Jerrion Ealy — who rushed for 785 yards and nine touchdowns in 10 games. Elijah Moore is gone, but three established receivers — Jonathan Mingo, Dontario Drummond and Braylon Sanders all are back to stretch the field for Corrall. Then, there’s the X-factor. John Rhys Plumlee, a quarterback who led the SEC in rushing two years ago with 113.67 yards per game, can play all over the field for Kiffin. Corral’s transformation into a master of Kiffin and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby’s system has transformed him into a superstar and the offense into the scariest offense in the SEC.
“They changed my whole thought process, man,” Corral said Tuesday at the second day of SEC Media Days. “They changed my whole thought process in how I look at a defense and how I just approach the game and the way I get ready for a game. It’s something different that I didn’t do two years ago when I was a freshman. Now it’s become habit. Truly, I’m blessed — I got lucky with them. I did.”
The defense, of course, has to change. Kiffin has lost 30 pounds over the offseason and told reporters that he won’t eat again until Ole Miss starts playing defense. There is hope for a quick turnaround. The truncated offseason and switch to a 3-4 defense played a big part in Ole Miss’ defensive incompetence last season.
“I think that us going into our last two games, the two games we won, the Egg Bowl and the bowl game, started to give us a little bit of confidence,” said defensive back Jaylon Jones. “Also, too, having a spring this season. Spring ball went well. Like I said before, our second year under this scheme, it’s giving guys a lot more confidence. We’ve got a lot of guys coming back. So we’re going to be a more experienced defense this year.”
Even if the defense does struggle, there’s still hope. Kiffin embraced football analytics over the last few years and has paired that with understanding the feel of each game in his decision-making process.
“I think part of that is analytics and just understanding how games are going,” Kiffin said. “Again, when you follow it and then if you have a team, like we were, when we were a lot better on offense than defense a year ago, you’ve got to be really aggressive, and you’re aggressive in your game plans. It’s not just fourth downs. It may be fakes, tricks, and taking more shots down the field, at times playing more aggressive on defense, knowing, hey, there’s a good chance they’re scoring, so let’s actually may more aggressive to try to create a turnover versus let them move down the field.”
If Kiffin stops fasting at some point in the near future and starts to put on some more weight, it could lead to Ole Miss jumping back into contention in the SEC West. All he needs is a few defensive stops to drastically change his team’s fortunes.