A Southeastern Conference football program with a cloudy recent past is developing a sunny outlook for the foreseeable future.
Ole Miss, which was ineligible for bowl games during the 2017 and 2018 seasons as a result of NCAA violations that occurred under previous coach Hugh Freeze, has ridden a youth movement to a 3-3 start in Matt Luke's third season. The Rebels already have doubled their SEC win total from last season with convincing triumphs over Arkansas (31-17) and Vanderbilt (31-6), and they are flourishing offensively behind the true freshman trio of quarterback John Rhys Plumlee and running backs Snoop Conner and Jerrion Ealy.
"We know we have some young guys who have the potential to be very, very good," Ealy said in a news conference following last Saturday's rout of the Commodores. "We just go out and work hard every day. That's our goal. We want to get a little bit better every day, so at the end of the year you're a whole lot better."
The Rebels will have to be a whole lot better to reach the postseason with a second-half schedule that contains a trip to Missouri this Saturday, dates with three ranked teams — Texas A&M, Auburn and LSU — and the Egg Bowl at Mississippi State. Ole Miss lost its last five games a year ago to turn a 5-2 start into a 5-7 season.
Eight offensive starters were lost from that team, which had many projections pegging Ole Miss and Arkansas as the league's two worst teams, but a 2019 signing class ranked 22nd nationally and ninth in the SEC is paying dividends. Plumlee, Ealy and Conner combined on 31 carries for a staggering 353 yards last Saturday, when the Rebels netted 413 rushing yards, their most against a league foe in 40 years.
Two other true freshmen, cornerback Deantre Prince and strong safety Jay Stanley, started on a defense that held the Commodores to 2-of-17 on third down.
"We just want to keep building on this," Luke said. "I think there is a lot of stuff we have to get better at. We're at the halfway point of the season, and we're just trying to find ways to get better moving forward.
"I'm really proud of these guys, because they just continue to get better and better, and the stage hasn't looked too big."
The top freshmen for the Rebels are homegrown talents, with Ealy the headliner as a five-star signee from the Jackson suburb of Flowood. Even more talented with a bat and glove, Ealy did not get selected as high as expected in June's baseball draft, instantly benefiting Luke's Rebels.
Through six games, the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Ealy has rushed 36 times for 294 yards (8.2 yards per carry) and three touchdowns.
Plumlee was a four-star prospect and Conner a three-star recruit from rival Hattiesburg high schools. Having first committed to Georgia before switching and signing with the Rebels, Plumlee began this season as redshirt freshman Matt Corral's backup but was thrust into action when Corral injured his ribs in a loss to California on Sept. 21.
"When you sign, you really want to go somewhere and help the team," Plumlee said. "I knew that Ealy and Snoop were really talented. I watched Snoop a lot, and it's special to play with someone who was a crosstown rival. To have success this early with a lot of young guys is really special, and I think we're really blessed with the abilities that we have.
"We were given opportunities and made the most of them."
Plumlee's first career start was at Alabama on Sept. 28, and he surprised the Crimson Tide by rushing 25 times for 109 yards and a touchdown and by throwing for 141 yards and two scores. Developing his aerial skills is an objective for Luke and first-year offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez, but Plumlee's success as a runner is certainly a plus.
In just three games, Plumlee has a team-high 327 yards on 50 carries (6.5), reaching the end zone twice.
Saturday's game at Mizzou, which will not have the services of standout linebacker Cale Garrett, will be key for the Rebels in their attempt to reach their first bowl since their 48-20 demolition of Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl after the 2015 season. Even if they come up short on the postseason, the Rebels have displayed enough quality youth to show that this is a program trending in a desired direction.
"We're not a finished product by any stretch, but I think we'll continue to get better," Luke said. "As much as we're running the ball, we can take advantage of some one-on-one shots with our wideouts, because we have some guys who are capable. The bottom line is that they're happy in the locker room, and to stand in front of a happy locker room after all the work they've put in is good.
"It gives them all the reassurance that we are moving forward and getting better."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.