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Ole Miss Offensive Preview

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Revisiting the true villains of The Blind Side movie.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Mississippi Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE BLIND SIDE MOVIE AHEAD.

[Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the movie in... 10 years. So I may be misremembering some details about the movie here.]

In 2009, the totally real and not at all embellished documentary The Blind Side was released (I know it’s a real documentary because I saw Nick Saban in the movie), and it told the inspirational story of one of Ole Miss’ most heralded recruiting prospects ever, offensive lineman Michael Oher. How did Ole Miss land such a highly-touted, surefire future NFL offensive lineman?

Michael Oher’s high school coach in the movie documentary, Coach Cotton, was actually the infamous Hugh Freeze. Like most 5-star SEC football recruits, he committed to the school for its stellar academic reputation and there was definitely nothing fishy about it whatsoever. In the movie, Michael Oher bravely tells off the big bad NCAA investigating the suspicious terms of his college commitment and lets the NCAA know that he really wants to attend Ole Miss and no one is forcing him to go, and the meanie NCAA investigator’s heart melts a little. See, nothing suspicious here at all.

Totally coincidentally, after Michael Oher signed with Ole Miss, Oher’s high school coach Hugh Freeze was hired by Ole Miss to be its “assistant athletic director for football external affairs” and later, Ole Miss’ tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator. I mean, the guy knows how to sign 5-star recruits, right?

Anyway, Hugh Freeze climbs the coaching ladder at a few other schools, and returns to Ole Miss as its head coach for the 2012 season. Freeze immediately has an impact: he turned the 2-10 team into a 7-6 team in his first season. He then pulls the biggest recruiting coup in modern history, parlaying that 7-6 season into snagging three of the top 5-star recruits in the nation in 2013 — DE Robert Nkemdiche, OL Laremy Tunsil, and WR Laquon Treadwell — all of whom were later drafted (as soon as they were eligible) in the first round of the NFL Draft in 2016. Hugh Freeze becomes the only coach since LSU’s Les Miles to defeat Nick Saban’s Alabama in back-to-back seasons. Hugh Freeze led Ole Miss to a national ranking as high as #3 and a Sugar Bowl victory in 2015. And it’s all because Hugh Freeze is such a great recruiter! He’s a “family man,” and a “mad scientist of college football recruiting”!

Of course, “mad scientist” Hugh Freeze stumbled upon the magic ingredient to recruiting top prospects: money, a definite no-no in the world of college recruiting.

[Aside: I think it is important to discuss the role of money in college athletics, especially in light of California’s recently passed SB 206 bill to allow players to profit off their name, image, and likeness. The stories surrounding the individual players are fairly tragic (Laremy Tunsil says Ole Miss players took money, and Robert Nkemdiche says he was with Tunsil the night he fell out of a 4th story hotel window and was charged with marijuana possession), and it’s clear that players like Laremy Tunsil were desperate, naive, and taken advantage of. Tunsil’s NFL draft stock tanked when images were released the day of the draft of him committing the high crime of smoking marijuana, and you can read about why nothing will ever be done about it.]

Ole Miss bravely stood by their embattled coach, and tried to pin the blame for the various recruiting violations on Freeze’s predecessor, Houston Nutt.

[Another aside: if you’ve actually seen The Blind Side, the fact that Houston Nutt and Hugh Freeze actually appear in the movie together is an interesting story in itself.]

In response, Nutt sued the University for defamation. In discovery, Nutt’s lawyers were able to review calls and texts from Freeze’s school-issued phone, and found that “family man” Hugh Freeze frequently used his school-issued phone to call up female escort services. (Southern media specifically points out that they were "female escorts" so readers can gauge just how outraged they need to be).

To Ole Miss, calling escorts demonstrates “a pattern of personal misconduct inconsistent with the standards we expect from the leader of our football team,” whereas evidently blatant recruiting violations are consistent with the standards of the leader of their football team, based on its ardent defense of Freeze prior to the escort revelations. (Hugh Freeze has since left for a far more liberal and open-minded university that doesn’t mind escort scandals: Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University). I’m not sure if it’s because he called the escorts or because he used his school-issued phone to do so, but Ole Miss had enough, and Hugh Freeze quickly resigned after the news broke before he could be fired.

Consequently, the NCAA came down hard on Ole Miss for these flagrant violation of the rules, violating the sanctity of amateurism in sport: they gave Ole Miss the death penalty. Just kidding, they gave them a 2 year bowl ban and reduced some scholarship numbers.

Finally, Ole Miss is back to full scholarships for the first time in 3 years. They were banned from a bowl for 2 years, but Ole Miss used their deft and cunning to circumvent this by failing to qualify for a bowl in 2018 anyway.

Did you see what I did here? I started with an inspirational movie like The Blind Side where you thought the villain was the NCAA, but I’ve actually turned it around and shown that the villain was Ole Miss all along.

Introduction

Anyway, I’m supposed to be writing about football. So here are a few surprising things I learned watching Ole Miss:

  • ESPN announcers correctly predicted that Cal will make the playoffs this year. Well, what they actually said was that “A Pac-12 team will make the playoffs,” and I may be filling in the rest of the blanks for them here.
  • Jordan Rodgers, estranged and presumably evil little brother of Cal great/NFL superstar QB Aaron Rodgers, is a TV announcer for the SEC Network. (I’m pointing out that Aaron Rodgers went to Cal to in the off-chance that anyone from Ole Miss is reading this.) Based on a sample of size of one game, he actually wasn’t terrible at it.

Ole Miss is coached by Ole Miss alum and former offensive line coach Matt Luke. The offensive coordinator is former Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, one of the innovators of the zone read option offense, and was last seen in 2017 during Khalil Tate’s breakout season as a running back quarterback. Rodriguez correctly identified that if you have a quarterback that can’t throw the ball all that well, then you should let him run the damn thing (looking at you, Noel Mazzone). As you’ll see though, Ole Miss is led by a quarterback who’s not very Tate-like, in that he can throw the ball well, and he’s more of a pro-style QB than a dual-threat QB, so it’ll be interesting to see how Rodriguez adapts his offense for Ole Miss.

Quarterback

Ole Miss is currently led by a redshirt freshman quarterback, Matt Corral. I’ve actually been impressed with the strides he’s made in their 3 games so far this year, and Ole Miss fans have a lot of reason for optimism for the future.

This is probably not the most common thing to compliment the QB on, but Corral has a really nice pump fake, and he’ll use it to try and get an aggressive defensive back out of position. Corral has also shown a lot of toughness: he’s not afraid to take a hit as he throws, and he’s more likely to try a spin move on a QB scramble than he is to run out of bounds.

It’s obvious watching Corral that he has a big arm:

Great deep ball by QB Matt Corral. The incompletion is on his WR Dontario Drummond, who slowed down on the route and lost a step.
Great deep ball by QB Matt Corral. The incompletion is on his WR Dontario Drummond, who slowed down on the route and lost a step.

He’s also pretty good at throwing on the run (as far as I saw, always to his right):

Nice pass from QB Matt Corral to WR Elijah Moore.
Nice pass from QB Matt Corral to WR Elijah Moore.

He’s not considered a dual-threat QB, but he is mobile, and not afraid to take a hit:

QB Matt Corral fakes the reverse, nearly runs for a TD.
QB Matt Corral fakes the reverse, nearly runs for a TD.

Nor is he afraid to take a hit as he throws:

Great throw by QB Matt Corral on the run to WR Elijah Moore.
Great throw by QB Matt Corral on the run to WR Elijah Moore.

On the other hand, as physically gifted as he is, he’s still a freshman quarterback prone to making mistakes. For one, he needs to do a better job at detecting pressure when he’s sitting in the pocket. As a freshman QB, he still hasn’t built much chemistry with any receiver not named Elijah Moore:

Nobody’s home. Likely miscommunication with RB Scottie Phillips on the route.
Nobody’s home. Likely miscommunication with RB Scottie Phillips on the route.

And here he is just not seeing the safety coming over the top. He’s not going to be able to afford this kind of mistake against a much sharper Cal secondary:

QB Matt Corral throws an INT when he misses the safety coming over the top.
QB Matt Corral throws an INT when he misses the safety coming over the top.

Thus, Corral is a talented, but young QB, and a bit of a wildcard here. He’s going to have his hands full against Cal, but I don’t want to be too definitive about this, due to the all-too-common phenomenon of opposing players having breakout games against Cal. I think he’ll be good at some point, but I don’t think he’s quite there yet. I expect Ole Miss to rely on a lot of yards after the catch from their receivers, the way they did against Arkansas.

Running back

RB Scottie Phillips is the star of this team, and a potential mid-to-late round NFL Draft pick. His closest Pac-12 comparison, in my opinion, is Eno Benjamin (so this actually might be a good preview of how Cal will do the following week stopping the run). He’s a 5’8” 210+ lb. downhill runner with good vision and the ability to make a cut and get upfield:

RB Scottie Phillips runs for a 65 yard TD.
RB Scottie Phillips runs for a 65 yard TD.

Tell me this doesn’t look like an Eno Benjamin run:

Nice 26 yard TD run by RB Scottie Phillips.
Nice 26 yard TD run by RB Scottie Phillips.

Ole Miss is also very high on his backup, Jerrion Ealy. Ealy is a 5-star freshman RB (who occasionally lines up as a slot WR) with a lot of speed and big play potential. Ole Miss will often be looking to get Ealy into open space:

Nice run by RB Jerrion Ealy as he gets into open space.
Nice run (well, catch) by RB Jerrion Ealy.

I think Ole Miss’ run game is going to be their biggest threat against Cal, and why Cal doesn’t match up particularly well with Ole Miss defensively (as opposed to the way Cal matched up well against UC Davis and North Texas). If Cal struggles to contain Phillips and Ealy, it’s going to be a long day.

Wide receiver

Ole Miss lost a lot of NFL-talent at wide receiver from last year: A.J. Brown (2nd round, 51st pick), D.K. Metcalf (2nd round, 64th pick), WR DaMarkus Lodge (UDFA with the Bucs, didn’t make roster), and TE Dawson Knox (3rd round, 96th pick). So who’s left at receiver?

Elijah Moore. The speedy slot receiver is by far the main target for Matt Corral. Through 3 games, Moore currently has 18 of the team’s 46 receptions (~40%). The next highest target is the tight end Octavious Cooley, who has 5 receptions in 3 games.

I watched a couple of Ole Miss’ games last year, but it really was an entirely different team. This year, this play was the first I saw of Elijah Moore:

WR Elijah Moore hangs onto the ball despite targeting.
WR Elijah Moore hangs onto the ball despite targeting.

Moore is another speedy receiver who is dangerous in space. Here he is embarrassing the SEC’s version of UCLA:

WR Elijah Moore with the 46 yard catch and run.
WR Elijah Moore with the 46 yard catch and run.

Allegedly Ole Miss has other receivers, but they are pretty hard to find. Here’s a rare spotting of one such player:

Nice catch and run by WR Dontario Drummond.
Nice catch and run by WR Dontario Drummond.

Offensive line

I don’t usually write a section on the offensive line, but Ole Miss lost two OL to the NFL last year (Greg Little in the 2nd round and Javon Patterson in the 7th), so I thought this unit was worth a look. I nearly suffered a severe injury watching these games, as my eyes nearly rolled to the back of my skull from repeated overexposure to references like “This is an SEC front,” “This is an SEC [position].” Well, here’s an SEC front that was repeatedly beaten on both sides of the ball by Memphis:

LT Michael Howard gets beaten for a sack.
LT Michael Howard gets beaten for a sack.

I’m not really sure where else to put this, but I also wanted to show the Memphis safety:

DE Bryce Huff waits for TE Octavious Cooley to leave his man, then gets the safety.
DE Bryce Huff waits for TE Octavious Cooley to leave his man, then gets the safety.

Ole Miss coach Matt Luke was an offensive line coach, so if there was one strength to this team, you might imagine this might be it. RT Alex Givens had NFL Draft buzz last season before returning for his senior year, but he has been recovering after a back surgery this off-season. According to that link, RG Ben Brown is the only other lineman returning with any starting experience. In other words, Ole Miss’ offensive line is in a pretty similar situation to Cal’s.

Special Teams

Well, if you noticed a trend when I kept saying, “Ole Miss likes to get [speedy player] into open space,” it probably won’t be surprising to see they have some dangerous kick returners. I’ll just let these clips speak for themselves:

CB Jaylon Jones with the kick return touchdown.
CB Jaylon Jones with the kick return touchdown.
RB Jerrion Ealy with a 94 yard kick return TD.
RB Jerrion Ealy with a 94 yard kick return TD.

Kicking and kick coverage have been an issue for Cal so far this season, so I could definitely see special teams becoming a factor in what is likely to be an otherwise close game.

Summary

Ole Miss reminds me a lot of a worse version of USC. Like... Diet USC... or USC-Lite? I’m not sure. Could imagine if you had a team loaded with NFL talent, but coaching ineptitude caused you to stumble to a 5-7 season? I mean, surely you’d fire your coach for that, right?

Unfortunately for Ole Miss, a lot of that NFL talent is gone, but their coaching ineptitude still remains. Justin Wilcox already upset a loaded Ole Miss team back in 2017 (opened Mississippi -3.5, closed at Mississippi -7; Cal won by 11), so it was a bit surprising to me to see Ole Miss fans already pencil this game in as a win in their quest for bowl eligibility, because Cal has gotten better since then, while Ole Miss has gotten worse. They are starting a freshman quarterback in place of the very talented Jordan Ta’amu, they lost their trio of star wide receivers to the NFL, they lost two of their best offensive linemen... and they have the same coach that has led them to 6-6 and 5-7 seasons with all of that talent. Cal is currently a bit banged up right now, but I’ve yet to see much of a convincing argument in favor of Ole Miss upsetting Cal outside of “Well, California kids can’t handle heat and humidity.” Lastly, thanks for scheduling this game at 9 AM PDT and hiding it on ESPNU, you big jerks.

Go Bears.