By Otis Kirk
Arkansas will open SEC play at Ole Miss on Saturday, Sept. 7, against a Rebels team they narrowly lost to in 2018.
The Rebels are coming off a 5-7 season including their lone SEC win over the Razorbacks. The Rebels will open the season at Memphis on Aug. 31 while the Hogs are taking on Portland State the same day.
While Matt Luke is back as head coach for the third season where he has compiled a record of 11-13 there’s a lot of new surrounding the program. Rich Rodriguez is the new offensive coordinator while Mike MacIntyre is the defensive coordinator. Those are two of the last five Pac-12 coaches of the year. Rodriguez at Arizona in 2014 and MacIntyre won the award in 2016 at Colorado.
It won’t just be assistant coaches that are new in Oxford. Only eight starters return including three on offense. Gone is quarterback Jordan Ta’amu who passed for 3,918 yards, 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2018. Enter redshirt freshman Matt Corral who completed 16 of 22 passes for 239 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in 2018 while still maintaining his redshirt.
The key player on offense is running back Scottie Phillips who rushed 153 times for 928 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior. A late-season ankle injury prevented him from topping the 1,000-yard mark on the ground.
Senior offensive tackle Alex Givens returns on the offensive line along with sophomore guard Ben Brown. Givens started at right tackle last season with Greg Little occupying the left spot, but he’s athletic enough to move to the left side this fall if needed. Gone too is talented center Sean Rawlings.
Gone are A.J. Brown, DaMarkus Lodge and D.K. Metcalf at wide receiver meaning the departure of 176 receptions. The leading returning receiver is sophomore Elijah Moore who caught 36 passes for 398 yards and two touchdowns.
On defense, the Rebels will move to a 3-4 base. The key returning player on defense may be senior outside linebacker Qaadir Sheppard. As a junior, he had 10 tackles for loss and eight pressures.
Seniors Benito Jones (nose tackle) and Josiah Coatney (end) return on the line. Junior Mohamed Sanogo is slotted in at inside linebacker. Senior Myles Hartsfield is back at one of the corner spots to head the secondary. Cornerback Jaylon Jones and safety Montrell Custis are trying to return from key injuries they suffered in 2018.
Ole Miss signed two recruits in Arkansas in the Class of 2019. Bentonville West wide receiver Jadon Jackson and Jonesboro offensive lineman Darius Thomas chose Ole Miss over a number of other schools.
Luke is counting on MacIntyre improving a defense that was ranked No. 113 in FBS in 2018 and on Rodriguez continuing an explosive offense despite getting hit hard by the NFL Draft. Rodriguez will have to try to keep the offensive very potent with a lot of new faces.
Ole Miss came from behind to beat Arkansas 37-33 in Little Rock in 2018. The other wins came against Texas Tech, Southern Illinois, Kent State and Louisiana-Monroe.