After back-to-back Cotton Bowl wins, the Ole Miss football program fell on hard times in 2010.
A small senior class, a lack of leadership and some off-the-field issues, among other things, resulted in a 4-8 campaign and a rude awakening for all involved.
NOTE: Ole Miss is picked to finish No. 6 in the SEC West by Scout.com publishers/writers.
Rebel coach Houston Nutt, who readily takes the brunt of the blame for the plummet, changed three assistant coaches – opting for old friend David Lee to run the offense, his former defensive coordinator at Arkansas Keith Burns to take over the secondary, and raiding Oklahoma State for wide receivers coach Gunter Brewer – and laid down the law on how things were going to be immediately after the season ended.
The offseason was highly productive, physically and mentally, and the Rebs went into spring training with a different mindset, led by junior outside linebacker D.T. Shackelford.
But spring had its share of setbacks as well. Nutt promised a physical spring to bring back the toughness he felt his team lost in 2010. While completely necessary, the price paid was a rash of spring injuries to some key players, including Shackelford, who will most likely miss the 2011 season after tearing an ACL. Fortunately, D.T. is the only one of the wounded not expected back when fall camp rolls around in August, but some younger players who will be counted on missed valuable time and reps.
Consequently, the crystal ball is hazy with a lot of uncertainty surrounding the squad. So far, here’s what is known and what remains to be figured out.
On offense, the coaches seem optimistic about the offensive line, led by senior left tackle Bradley Sowell and junior right tackle Bobby Massie. There’s a healthy mix of experience, leadership, depth and talent, albeit some of the players vying for quality time are on the young side. In spring, the run blocking was a plus while the pass protection improved.
Another “strength” area is at running back, where do-everything Brandon Bolden, who just missed 1,000 yards rushing as a junior; senior power runner Enrique Davis, who had an impressive spring; and scatback sophomore Jeff Scott return for duty. H.R. Greer and E.J. Epperson showed they can man the fullback slot competently.
From there, things get sketchy.
Although the staff is pleased with the quarterback candidates, nothing ironclad was settled in spring training among junior Randall Mackey, a dual-threat performer; transfer sophomore Barry Brunetti, cut from the same cloth as Mackey; and JUCO transfer Zack Stoudt, a taller, bigger pro style signal-caller. All three showed signs of being able to lead the team in spring, but none are finished products at this juncture.
At tight end, senior Ferbia Allen has the trust of the coaches, but he’s under 240 pounds. Alex Williams was moved from wide receiver to tight end in spring, but he’s light as well. The Rebs are expecting production from JUCO signee Jamal Mosley, a prototype 6-5, 255-pounder.
Spring training was also an indication why the coaches signed several top-notch wide receivers in last February’s class. While Ja-Mes Logan, Vincent Sanders and 6-7 Melvin Harris give the Rebels a decent base at those slots, more help is needed and hopefully on the way.
On defense, where the Rebs struggled last season, the loss of Shackelford was a blow, but when all (most) hands get on board healthy, the Rebs should show improvement due to better chemistry, more athleticism, Burns’ influence in the secondary, a more determined attitude and the return of sixth-year senior leader Kentrell Lockett at defensive end.
The defensive line is not as big as last year, but will be more active and athletic and, consequently, should be more disruptive. Redshirt freshman Carlton Martin and Bryon Bennett may end up being the top defensive tackles, which is good and bad. They will have to learn on the fly, but they are very talented.
The linebackers, despite being young and most likely without Shackelford, will be faster, bigger and, from the looks of spring, hungrier. They were the most prolific playmakers in spring training.
In the secondary, the frontliners should be productive but more bodies are needed – in a hurry.
The good news is the Rebels should be a “better” team than in 2010. The bad news is the schedule will be tougher.
How will it all pan out in 2011? Based on spring, the team is headed in the right direction, but there’s a lot more work to be done before any predictions can be made.