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Time is running out for Houston Nutt. Regarded as one of the best coaches in the game when expectations are low, Nutt couldn’t summon his typical rally in 2010. The Rebels finished the season 4-8 and we barely in contention at any point in the season. Ole Miss’ two season highlights were a 42-35 win at home over Kentucky, and staying within a score of Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl, also at home. This year, the Rebels again play host to a transferring quarterback, again have questions on the offensive line and at wide receiver, and again have no depth anywhere. This could be the kind of season that gets Nutt shelled.
Returning Offensive Starters: 6 (LT, LG, C, RT, TE, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 4 (LDE, SLB, RCB, FS)
Returning Specialists: 2 (P, PK)
Projected Overall Record: 3-9 (UA, Ark, AU, LSU, BYU, MSU, VU, UGA, UK)
Projected SEC Record: 0-8 (UA, Ark, AU, LSU, MSU, VU, UGA, UK)
Projected SEC West Record: 0-5 (UA, Ark, AU, LSU, MSU)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Fr Defensive Line: Fr
Running Backs: Av Linebackers: Pr
Wide Receivers: Pr Defensive Backs: Pr
Offensive Line: Fr Special Teams: Vg
Nutt prefers to play power football, but he doesn’t have the horses for that in 2011. Expect to see more spread sets, freestyling from the quarterback position and the use of two tailbacks rather than a traditional I-formation most of the time. Nutt simply can’t afford to try lining up against the opposition and go head-to-head. The Rebels have a decent running game, but there are questions under center and especially at receiver.
QUARTERBACKS (rating: Fr, 5thSEC West, 9th overall)
Despite the defection of Nathan Stanley in the spring, depth here isn’t all that bad. Randall Mackey figures to be the starter on opening day, but West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti and Zack Stoudt also are in the mix. Mackey is a top-level athlete who isn’t much bigger than Brent Schaeffer, who once flopped as Ole Miss’ quarterback after starting his career to much promise at Tennessee. If Mackey loses the quarterback job, he will almost certainly find his way onto the field in other ways. The biggest problem with him at quarterback is that he’s 5’11” and is stretching to get to 200 pounds. Brunetti is also on the smaller side, while Stoudt has good size but isn’t the athlete the other two are. The common thread is that none of them have SEC experience yet.
RUNNING BACKS (rating: Av, 5th SEC West, 8th overall)
Brandon Bolden is a workmanlike back who doesn’t do anything to wow anyone, but he always gives a solid effort. He also averaged 6.0 yards per carry last year and scored 14 touchdowns, so he’s doing something right. The rest of the backfield is up in the air. Ole Miss might opt for two tailbacks on the field together, at which point scatback Jeff Scott, all 5’7” and 170 pounds of him, will get the call. If the Rebels opt for the fullback, H.R. Greer and E.J. Epperson are in play. Enrique Davis figures to back up both sets of players. He’s built almost exactly like Bolden (5’11”, 220) but has never reached Bolden’s level of production despite being more highly rated coming out of high school. Devin Thomas and Tim Simon provide depth, although Simon has yet to get back to his pre-injury self. Expect a lunchpail effort from Bolden week in and week out, and Scott can cause some problems, but this isn’t a particularly showy group.
WIDE RECEIVERS (rating: Pr, 6th SEC West, 12th overall)
There is a dearth of playmakers here and the only returning starter, tight end Ferbia Allen, isn’t particularly a strength for this team. Allen is mostly a blocker and caught just 5 passes in 2011. At receiver, it should be noted that a running back (Bolden) led the team in receptions in 2010 with just 32. Melvin Harris was the leading returning receiver who actually played receiver in 2010, but he may not even start. If he does, though, and can develop his 6’6” frame, he could be a difference-maker by year’s end or in 2012. He caught 30 balls in 2010. Ja-Mes Logan is a cinch to start at the other position, and supposedly had a nice offseason and start to fall camp. He has decent size and speed, but his primary weapon is consistency, which no one else on the team has yet displayed. Vincent Sanders and Terrell Grant are the most likely backups, along with Philander Moore. Sanders in particular has raised some eyebrows; he’s just a redshirt freshman, but he has the most potential of any receiver on the list. Korvic Neat is the wild card, as he could get some reps in the backfield. He’s one of the team’s smallest players at just 165 pounds. Signee Nick Brassell figures to get a long look. Behind Allen at tight end is Alex Williams and JUCO transfer Jamal Mosley. Mosley won’t stay on the bench for long. This group figures to improve in time, but for now this is a work in progress.
OFFENSIVE LINE (rating: Fr, 5th SEC West, 10th overall)
Four starters return, but that’s not necessarily a good thing, particularly on the interior. There is no doubt that left tackle Bradley Sowell will play at the next level, and right tackle Bobby Massie probably will as well, although he might move to guard in the NFL. The problem for this team is that returning starters Alex Washington (right guard) and A.J. Hawkins (center) both need to get better. Right guard is up for grabs between Arkansas transfer Matt Hall and sophomore holdover Jared Duke. In typical Houston Nutt fashion, there isn’t a small player on the roster here. A quick scan of the post-spring depth chart showed only one offensive lineman at less than 300 pounds. The average starting weight of the post-spring starters is 330 pounds. Nutt has always prized girth over finesse, so look for Ole Miss to excel in short-yardage situations but perhaps struggle in pass blocking. Evan Swindall is still in competition for the center’s job with Hawkins, and Emmanuel McCray is in the mix at guard. The primary tackle depth will come from Patrick Junen, who struggled in 2010, and Logan Clair. Ole Miss is expecting big things, but cohesion from the center of the line is critical.
Despite having a veteran front seven in 2010, the Rebels finished only 61st in rush defense and 103rd in pass defense. Things didn’t get better with the loss of D.T. Shackelford for the season to injury, or the massive hit to graduation the front seven took. Add to that an overrated secondary, depth issues throughout and generally questionable athleticism, and Ole Miss figures to put a lot of pressure on its offense to keep up.
DEFENSIVE LINE (rating: Fr, 6th SEC West, 10th overall)
If being strong in the trenches is the harbinger of success in the NFL, Ole Miss is in trouble. The defensive line will have to surprise everyone to be good. Ole Miss does get a healthy Kentrell Lockett at end, and there’s decent experience at the other side, where Gerald Rivers, Cameron Whigham and Wayne Dorsey are competing for the slot. Lockett will need plenty of relief work, too, to stay 100 percent throughout the season, and doing so is key. If Ole Miss were to lose him, the Rebels are sunk. The tackle situation is unsettled. Byron Bennett figures to take one of the starting jobs, and he’s just a freshman. Senior Justin Smith is in the mix at the other slot, but he’s a journeyman and is being pressured by sophomore Corey Gaines and JUCO transfer Uriah Grant, who will likely end up the starter by year’s end. Gilbert Pena and Taurus Ward can bring the bulk, but neither has experience on this level.
LINEBACKERS (rating: Pr, 5th SEC West, 11th overall)
It’s a good thing Joel Kight is still here. Otherwise, it’s not clear whether Ole Miss would even have a SEC-caliber group. After Shackelford’s injury, Clarence Jackson compounded the problem by being suspended after the spring. He subsequently transferred to Jacksonville State. Now, sophomore Mike Marry is left to carry the torch along with likely a true freshman, C.J. Johnson. Rudy Wilson will find a niche somewhere; he’s got experience, but is on the small side and is not a difference-maker. Keith Lewis, Will Martin and Ralph Williams are the other main choices for defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix, and none of them have any experience on the job. Sam Noblin could play here or remain at safety. Ole Miss’ other signees are woefully undersized for the position at this point and will need redshirts to add bulk. Even Kight, the bright spot in this unit, was criticized in 2010 for lack of consistency. Ole Miss needs help here.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (rating: Pr, 6th SEC West, 12th overall)
Without massive improvement, this is likely to be the worst secondary in the league in 2011. Free safety Damien Jackson isn’t terrible, but he can’t carry the load by himself. Little-used Brishen Mathews led the way out of spring at strong safety. From an experience standpoint, things are a bit better at corner, where Marcus Temple returns at one position and Charles Sawyer steps up to take the other. There’s a lot of talk about JUCO transfer Wesley Pendleton, but he’s an athlete first and a cornerback second. Cliff Coleman, a freshman, will be the other backup. The reserve safety slots fall to Ivan Nicholas and Frank Crawford, although Sam Noblin could help out if he’s not needed too badly at linebacker. One of Ole Miss’ top signees, corner Senquez Golson, figures to play sooner rather than later. This unit will be downright scary – and not in a good way – without a minor miracle.
SPECIAL TEAMS (rating: Vg, 1st SEC West, 3rd overall)
There are no concerns here, where the Rebels bring back arguably the best punter in the conference (Tyler Campbell) and a consistent-as-sunshine kicker in Bryson Rose. Rose missed only 2 field goals all of 2010; he just didn’t get enough chances, thanks to the anemic offense. Campbell figures to get plenty of chances to improve his draft stock. Jeff Scott proved himself to be a capable kickoff return man, ranking 20th in the country last year, but the Rebels need to replace Jesse Grandy on the other side. Philander Moore and Korvic Neat could be the eventual options there.
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