OXFORD, Miss. (WTVA/Ole Miss Athletics) - The focus will be on players and not plays, Ole Miss head football coach Matt Luke proclaimed at his Tuesday press conference opening spring football, referring to how valuable the 15 practices the Rebels get are to developing younger players and building depth heading into the fall.
"We have a nice mix of experience yet are also focusing on some young guys and new guys getting quality reps and building depth," Luke said. "We really want to get these young guys reps to see what they can do."
While Luke noted the staff will expand on new schemes implemented last year on each side of the football, the continuity of having the same coordinators still in place will put them further along and leave more time for developing young talent.
"Since we kept the same systems we are going to be much further ahead from a schematic standpoint so we want to get these young guys who either redshirted or were on scout team last year some reps and work on building our depth," Luke said.
Luke went over who of the returning players will and will not participate in spring practice based on various offseason surgeries and injuries. Below is a list of where the players stand:
Out: Dawson Knox, D.K. Buford. D'Vaughn Pennamon
Limited: Alex Givens, Demarcus Gregory (knee), Scottie Phillips, Sean Rawlings.
Out: Austrian Robinson, Benito Jones, Qaadir Sheppard
Limited: Ken Webster (groin), C.J. Miller
"They have minor injuries from training the last month and will be limited to start. It is nothing serious," Luke said of the limited participants. He also noted that he does not fear anyone missing time in the fall despite being held out for the spring.
This spring season will give the coaching staff a glimpse at a couple of players at new positions, like Armani Linton, who will transition from safety to running back in an effort to build depth with the departure of leading rusher Jordan Wilkins.
"He's just a big, talented athlete," Luke said. "When you have guys like that on the bus you just want to find the right seat for them. He is a very big athlete and is very intelligent. I think he can help us somewhere. He really came on last year on special teams. I think he needs to play somewhere and we are just trying to find the right spot."
Linton could move back to safety depending on how the transition goes, but Luke is optimistic this will be a good fit.
Brenden Williams moved from linebacker to defensive end and newcomer Vernon Dasher will move from linebacker to star, a hybrid linebacker with more coverage responsibilities.
Along with Linton, newcomer Scottie Phillips, who will be limited at the beginning of spring ball, is expected to immediately compete for playing time at running back. Phillips comes in as the number one rated junior college tailback in the country and will be thrust into a mix consisting of D'Vaughn Pennamon, Eric Swinney and D.K. Buford.
"Anytime you take a junior college player you are expecting him to compete for playing time," Luke said. "That's what we want to see. He is the number one junior college running back in the country. There is going to be a really good competition at running back."
Defensively, the number one priority will be developing linebackers, a spot in which Ole Miss lost leading tackler DeMarquis Gates and a position the Rebels were slightly thin at last season. Luke feels confident about veterans Detric Bing-Dukes and Willie Hibbler at this position, but after the addition of a recruiting class that brought in a slew of new linebackers he is excited to see what some of the younger guys have to offer at this position.
"Detric and Willie will start there, but really Mohamed Sanogo, Josh Clarke and Zikerrion Baker are the guys we want to see what they can do. It is going to be a huge spring for them," Luke said. "We have more guys coming from high school but they are not here yet. We really want to see what these young guys can do. I am cautiously optimistic about those guys because they have waited their turn. They have gotten stronger and have been in the system. I am excited to see them out there making calls and flying around."
Aside from that, Luke would like to put his stamp on this football team, something that was difficult to do in 2017 without an offseason to prepare. He wants to build on the momentum the end of the season brought and take full advantage of the 15 practices allotted to the team.