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Friday, April 30, 2010

Two-A-Days: Ole Miss Rebels

Last year, we spent two weeks talking with beat writers from around the SEC to get a feel for how Georgia's competition stood at the end of spring.

To read previous entries, click HERE.

Ole Miss in a flash:

Head Coach: Houston Nutt, 3rd year
2009 Record: 9-4 (4-4 SEC), beat Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl
2009 Stats: Total offense, 402.38 ypg (5th SEC, 44th nationally); Total defense, 314.69 ypg (4th SEC, 21st nationally)
Coaching Changes: Offensive coordinator Kent Austin left following the 2009 season to take over as head coach at Cornell. In his place, Nutt hired Dave Rader, who last worked as OC under Mike Shula at Alabama. Rader will coach QBs and share OC duties with O line coach Mike Markuson.
Starters Returning: Offense (4), Defense (6), Special Teams (1)
Key Player Losses: QB Jevan Snead, RB Dexter McCluster, WR Shay Hodge, DE Greg Hardy
Big Games: @ Alabama (10/16), Arkansas (10/23), Auburn (10/30), @ LSU (11/20)
Non-Conference Slate: Jacksonville State (9/4), Tulane (9/11), Fresno State (9/25), Louisiana-Lafayette (11/6)

Houston Nutt took Ole Miss to the Cotton Bowl in each of his first two seasons, but the job gets much tougher this year with the departure of the bulk of his offense from last year's team. The schedule isn't particularly daunting aside from a three-game stretch in October against Alabama, Arkansas and Auburn, but there's definitely going to be a lot of work for the Rebels to get done between now and then.

As for how far Ole Miss progressed this spring, I checked in with Rebels beat writer Parrish Alford of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. Here's what he had to say…

David Hale: Jevan Snead's decision to leave for the NFL caught a lot of fans by surprise, but how much has this left Ole Miss in the lurch? How impressive were Raymond Cotton and Nathan Stanley this spring? What's the status of Cotton's labrum injury?

Parrish Alford: Ole Miss is left in the lurch, because Snead was 18-8 in 26 starts. There is only one QB on the roster, Nathan Stanley, with game experience, and Stanley received more than mop-up duty just once in five appearances last year. Snead threw 20 picks, but his 20 touchdowns can't be overlooked. He has the tools, and if you're a coach, you'd choose to take an 18-8 veteran and take the chance of working him through his problems, rather than go into a season inexperienced under center.

That being said, the question was asked of Houston Nutt in the spring if he thought he could be better at quarterback. Stanley had a good spring with accurate throws and improved decision-making. In his two seasons of practice he's thrown a nice deep ball, and he'll surprise some folks with his mobility.

Stanley won the job with his own performance, but getting there was certainly made easier by the absence of his primary competition, Raymond Cotton. It was discovered late in spring that Cotton has a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. It may or may not require immediate surgery. If it does not, Cotton showed enough in the spring game to indicate he'll continue to push Stanley in August. If surgery is required this summer, the Rebels become very thin at QB. Two inexperienced quarterbacks are definitely better than one inexperienced quarterback.

Junior college transfer Randall Mackey will arrive in the summer. He's extremely athletic, and he'll help out. Nutt has mentioned him as in the mix for starter, but it's hard to believe a guy who won't practice with his teammates until August will win the job. It didn't work out well when the previous administration tried that with Brent Schaeffer.

Needless to say, Mackey's role will increase greatly if Cotton has surgery.

DH: I'm guessing no one can step in and replace Dexter McCluster, who did a little of everything for Ole Miss last year. But from what you saw this spring, is there someone who can at least help bridge the gap as the Rebels transition their offense?

PA: Dexter McCluster will have to be replaced with several people. Sophomore wide receiver Jesse Grandy will do some of the same things as far as getting on the edge with short passing and taking off with a shotgun snap. Grandy had a really good spring and showed good hands downfield as well.

As far as what McCluster did between the tackles, there are a three backs, all with some SEC experience, but none who has been “the guy.”

Brandon Bolden enters spring at No. 1. They tried to make Bolden “the guy” last year, and had he taken over, McCluster would not have become the McCluster that people remember. He'd have still played a key role as a wideout and utility player but not as a 25-carry a game tailback. Enrique Davis and Rodney Scott are the other top backs. They're mostly straight-ahead runners. The wiggle comes from deeper down the depth chart with converted DB Derrick Herman and redshirt freshman Korvic Neat. That difference could get Herman or Neat on the field.

DH: With so much transition on offense, how much pressure is on defensive stalwarts like Kentrell Lockett and Jarrell Powe to carry the team? How have they responded this spring to that pressure?

PA: Kentrell Lockett and Jerrell Powe had really good springs. The DL typically dominated the OL, although the OL improved and got in some licks later in the drills. There's no question the defense will have to carry this team early. There are four seniors on the 2-deep at tackle, but only Lockett with game experience at end.

DH: How much will the Rebels be counting on some of the JuCo transfers -- both the spring arrivals and the ones getting to campus this summer -- to help make up for all the personnel losses from last year? How did the JuCos already on campus perform this spring?

PA: JuCo transfers will play a key role. Wayne Dorsey will start at the end opposite, Lockett, and Damien Jackson could be a starter at safety.

The Rebels basically rotate three safeties between the strong and free positions, and Jackson will definitely get lots of action. He turned heads in the spring with his hits and his ability to break on the ball and make big plays.

Dorsey had a good spring too, and when his knowledge allows him to turn it loose, his speed will take over. He's quicker than a 6-8, 255-pounder should be.

That being said, there's an acclimation period for all newcomers. Dorsey and Jackson – and Mackey on offense – are expected to move through this pretty quickly.

DH: What's the mood from Houston Nutt at the end of spring practice? With so many new faces in key places, was he genuinely pleased with what he saw or is there still a good dose of concern heading into the summer?

PA: Houston's feeling coming out of spring is a mixed bag. He's further along in the secondary than he thought he'd be after seeing the play Jackson and redshirt freshman cornerback Charles Sawyer along with the veterans. He believes he has a good quarterback situation and is cautiously optimistic about his offensive line. He can't afford an injury there, and really needs good play from Rishaw Johnson at right guard.

The Rebels are a little more experienced at the tackles, but Johnson – who was suspended the back half of last season – can bring a more physical nature to the interior – where there will be three new starters. He can't afford an injury on the OL.

The plus side is the schedule, with Jacksonville State and Tulane out of the gate, gives a young team a chance to grow before opening SEC play at home on Sept. 18 against Vanderbilt.


Ah, "cautiously optimistic." Aren't we all. Many thanks to Parrish for the great insight. You can read his Ole Miss coverage HERE, check out his blog HERE and follow him on Twitter HERE.

So, what are your thoughts on Ole Miss this year? Can the Rebels' soft early schedule help them overcome the losses of Snead and McCluster? Or will this be a rebuilding season for Houston Nutt's crew?

And don't forget, we'll be wrapping up Two-A-Days with an in-depth look at Georgia, so if you have questions you want answered, leave them in the comments section here or send me an email at

NEXT UP: Georgia Tech on Monday.

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