OXFORD, Miss. — Mississippi’s Phil Longo was hired to make a good offense even better.
After a crazy offseason, that’s still the case. The 48-year-old offensive coordinator could have even more authority to make a quick imprint on the Rebels than was ever expected.
“Coach Longo will call the plays on offense, coach (Wesley) McGriff is going to call the plays on defense,” Ole Miss interim coach Matt Luke said. “I’ll certainly interject if I feel like I can help in any way, but I’m going to let those guys do their jobs.”
Longo was hired by former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, who abruptly resigned in July after the school found “personal misconduct” following research into his phone records. Freeze was regarded as the mastermind of an Ole Miss offense that consistently ranked among the most productive in the Southeastern Conference — especially in the passing categories.
But the Rebels often struggled to run the ball under Freeze, so Longo’s main task was to establish a ground game that would work well in the program’s spread offense concept.
The transition was well underway before Freeze’s stunning resignation. Luke says he trusts Longo to see the project to completion and help the Rebels improve on last year’s 5-7 record.
“I fully appreciate the fact that coach Luke has let us run with what we’re doing,” Longo said. “I think our kids are getting it now.”
Longo’s ability to keep the Ole Miss offense rolling will be under close scrutiny when the Rebels host South Alabama on Saturday in the season opener for both teams.
The Ole Miss offense has several promising young players that will determine whether Longo’s offense is a success. Sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson threw for 880 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions in three starts last season.
Sophomore Greg Little will protect Patterson’s blind side at left tackle while receivers like sophomore A.J. Brown — who caught 29 passes for 412 yards last season — will provide inviting targets.
The running game is a little more unsettled. Senior Jordan Wilkins will be the starting running back in the first game after sitting out last season because of an academic issue. His backups will be sophomore D’Vaughn Pennamon, senior Eugene Brazley and sophomore Eric Swinney.
“That’s the position I’m most interested in watching compete on Saturday,” Longo said.
The scrutiny on Longo is amplified by the fact that he’s never coached at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, much less the SEC. He came to Oxford after three impressive years as the offensive coordinator at Sam Houston State and has also had stops at places like Minnesota-Duluth, Southern Illinois, Youngstown State and Slippery Rock.
Despite the fairly anonymous pedigree, Longo’s success impressed Freeze. Sam Houston State was the only team at the FCS level to throw for 4,500 yards and run for 2,000 yards in 2016.
Longo said Freeze had already given him a lot of offensive responsibility before his resignation. That could come in handy now that Freeze is out of the picture.
“He turned it over,” Longo said. “I spent maybe 10 minutes with him in the offensive staff room talking about Xs and Os. He asked me what I really wanted the most with regards to taking the position, and I told him autonomy. He said that was his goal.”