With scandal behind it, Ole Miss prepares for new start

 

Ben Portnoy

 

 

HOOVER, Ala. -- Matt Luke has seen the light. 

 

Freed from the "cloud" of NCAA sanctions and a bowl ban, the Mississippi football coach told gathered reporters at Tuesday's SEC Media Days session in Hoover his team is refreshed heading into the 2019 season. 

 

"I just think just the overall feel of normalcy, even coming here today and answering questions about football, has been refreshing," Luke said. 

 

Following the fallout from the Hugh Freeze scandal and impending investigation, Ole Miss is now bowl eligible and back to its full allotment of 85 scholarships following nearly three years of turmoil. 

 

"I think when you start looking at the end of October and November of last season in the fourth quarter -- that's when that depth really starts showing up," Luke said of having a short number of scholarships. "I'm excited about some of this, even though there are going to be new faces and some of them are going to be freshmen, there are going to be several competition battles going on in fall camp, and I'm really looking forward to seeing that depth show up especially towards the end of the season." 

 

On campus, both quarterback Matt Corral and offensive lineman Alex Givens have seen a marked difference in the team's demeanor this offseason with less lingering NCAA questions. 

 

"Just 'cause we love the game of football, we were always going to give it our best last year," Corral said. "This year it's a whole different meaning because we can get a prize at the end. We want that." 

 

"You've got a lot of guys that can get on the field and compete and that's the biggest thing," Givens added. "You have depth now to compete and make people work harder. It builds team character." 

 

The Rebels have also seen the results of a cleaned up program on the recruiting trail. After inking a massive 31-member class for the 2019 cycle, Luke and his staff have earned 16 of Ole Miss' 21 commitments in the class of 2020 commits since June 3. 

 

"It's fun to be able to walk into a living room of a recruit and not having to talk about any of that stuff," Luke said of the sanctions. "You have the opportunity to sell Ole Miss and Oxford for what it is and you don't have to worry about all of the other garbage." 

 

While the Rebels are now cleared from the fray of the Freeze era, on-field questions persist. Administratively Luke welcomes Rich Rodriguez and Mike MacIntyre as the new offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively. 

 

Rodriguez takes over an offense anchored by a first year starting quarterback in Corral and Maxwell Award Watch List member running back Scottie Phillips. 

 

Defensively, McIntyre owns the unenviable task of improving a unit that finished 114th in the nation in total defense and 113th in points allowed per game a year ago. 

 

Fresh faces aside, there's a feeling of reprieve in Oxford -- one that the Rebels hope leads to their first bowl game since 2015. 

 

"All that stuff is in the past now," Givens said. "And we're ready to move on from it."

 

Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.

 

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