Ole Miss pushes past NCAA penalties, ready to rebuild

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi’s football program is still dealing with the fallout from NCAA penalties — including a two-year bowl ban — that were assessed last year following a long-running rules violations case.

But the Rebels stopped pouting about that a long time ago.

Second-year coach Matt Luke is in the midst of a rebuild that he hopes can vault the Rebels back into the Southeastern Conference elite sooner rather than later. The burly 41-year-old, who was an offensive lineman for the Rebels in the 1990s, relishes the challenge.

“There are no shortcuts and that’s what you have to do if you want to be really good,” Luke said. “You’ve got to roll your sleeves up and go to work.”

Ole Miss showed flashes of the toughness Luke craves last season when it fought to a respectable 6-6 record despite coach Hugh Freeze’s stunning resignation just before preseason camp started. Luke took over as the interim coach and was rewarded with the full-time job after the Rebels beat Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl.

After signing a solid recruiting class, Luke says the positive energy around the program is palpable.

“You get the feel of guys working extra and doing all the little things that it takes to be a special football team,” Luke said.

Ole Miss is expected to be very good on offense this fall thanks to the presence of senior quarterback Jordan Ta’amu, receivers A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf and an experienced offensive line. Brown is considered one of the top receivers in the country after catching 75 passes for 1,252 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.

The defense is much more unsettled and will be counting on several young players to improve, especially at linebacker. The Rebels do have some experienced players in the secondary, including senior safety Zedrick Woods, who was fourth on the team with 64 tackles last season.

The Rebels open the season against Texas Tech in Houston on Sept. 1.

It’ll be the first of several tests for Ole Miss as it navigates through the always-tough SEC schedule. Even though the Rebels aren’t currently eligible for the postseason, players insist there’s plenty to play for over the next three months.

“We’re going to handle the 12 games we’ve got,” Brown said. “Make the most of them.”

A few more things to know about the Rebels in 2018:

TA’AMU’S ENCORE: Ta’amu took over at quarterback in the middle of last season after starter Shea Patterson’s knee injury and performed much better than just about anyone expected. He completed more than 66 percent of his passes for 1,682 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. After Patterson transferred to Michigan during the offseason, Ta’amu is the unquestioned starter.

NCAA CASE NOT OVER YET: Ole Miss still has an outside shot at being eligible for the postseason this season. The program is still appealing its two-year bowl ban — arguing the second year was excessive — and the NCAA is expected to make its final ruling sometime this fall. Luke said there’s no sense in worrying about the verdict: “We’re going to play for each other and then if something else happens, it’s a bonus.”

IT CAN’T GET WORSE, RIGHT? Ole Miss had one of the worst defenses in the SEC last season, giving up nearly 35 points per game. It’s easy to say there’s nowhere to go but up, but that might not be the case: The Rebels have to replace several talented players from last year, including linebacker DeMarquis Gates, who led the team with 114 tackles. Also gone are defensive linemen Breeland Speaks and Marquis Haynes, who combined for 19 tackles for a loss, including 14.5 sacks.

NOT JUST BROWN: The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Brown is considered an elite NFL prospect at receiver, but the Rebels shouldn’t be a one-man show on offense. DaMarkus Lodge returns after catching 41 passes for 698 yards and seven touchdowns while Metcalf caught 39 passes for 646 yards and seven touchdowns.

SCANNING THE SCHEDULE: Ole Miss has an intriguing first game against Texas Tech in Houston on Sept. 1. A shootout is expected: The Red Raiders and Rebels both scored a lot of points last season but struggled to stop opponents. Ole Miss has two more tough games in the season’s opening month, hosting Alabama on Sept. 15 and travelling to face LSU on Sept. 29.