- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 7, 2018

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) - There aren’t many people paying attention to Mississippi’s football program these days.

That’s not a bad thing.

After a few years of NCAA infractions trouble and a turbulent coaching change, in a lot of ways the low-stress spring is exactly what second-year coach Matt Luke and the Rebels needed.

“I’m so happy we’re out of the tunnel and everything’s done,” Ole Miss offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “In this new era with Matt Luke, recruiting has skyrocketed. It’s been great. The attitude of our players has never changed.

“It’s nice to be able to come out here and focus on our job and go to work.”

The focus is needed because there’s plenty of work to be done for the Rebels. Ole Miss finished with a 6-6 record last season, which was a respectable mark considering the program lost coach Hugh Freeze just before the season after he resigned for inappropriate conduct .

The turmoil continued after the season when the NCAA ruled that the Rebels’ bowl ban would extend to the 2018 season. That led to the transfer of a handful of players, including starting quarterback Shea Patterson, who left for Michigan .

The good news: The attrition and drama appear to be mostly over.

Ole Miss is still appealing the bowl ban for 2018, but even if that’s denied, the Rebels know the penalties can’t get worse. The decision to keep Luke as the permanent head coach helped the program lock down a solid recruiting class in February and for the first time in a long while, there’s a feeling of stability in Oxford.

“There is no more uncertainty,” Luke said. “The cloud of uncertainty is what hurt more than anything because your competitors can say whatever, or paint as bad of a picture as they want to paint.”

Ole Miss now turns its attention to the field where there are still some reasons for optimism. Backup quarterback Jordan Ta’amu returns after playing well during the last half of the season following Patterson’s season-ending knee injury.

Ta’amu said the spring has been beneficial as he continues to develop a rapport with the offense and coaches.

“They just told me to go out there, play my game and be more vocal,” Ta’amu said. “That’s what I’ve got to work on this spring.”

The soft-spoken Ta’amu was maybe the biggest surprise for the Rebels last season, completing nearly 67 percent of his passes while throwing for 1,682 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. Most importantly, he led Ole Miss to a shocking road win over rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl.

“I was kind of blown away with how the kids followed him and his leadership skills,” Luke said.

It helps that Ta’amu is surrounded by multiple players with NFL talent, including left tackle Greg Little and receivers A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf.

That will be the cornerstone of the Rebels’ 2018 roster while Luke tries to replenish the depth that’s been lost through attrition. During this quiet spring, the football field finally has his full attention.

“We do have some guys who are proven, especially on offense,” Luke said. “But you’ve always got to find the next wave of guys. The guys who can step in and play - we’ve got to get them some experience this spring.”


More AP college football at www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25 .

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