Ole Miss Rebels: Team Overview
by Jess Nicholas
August 27, 2009
The Rebels, as predicted here last year, made quite a bit of noise in the SEC West. This year, predictably, many in the media are looking for the next big thing (or more appropriately, the next big thing not named Alabama or LSU) and have pegged Ole Miss for the next superstar school. But as Lee Corso would say, not so fast.
Rebel head coach Houston Nutt has always been a better underdog than frontrunner, and in 2009, his Rebels are most assuredly frontrunners. But this is a team with a tenuous-at-best offensive line situation, and a rickety secondary that just barely held on in 2008 may not be up to the task in 2009. While Ole Miss will likely put up some gaudy numbers, and should win 10 games if its offensive line holds together, this team is still quite a few pieces shy of being an annual contender in the tough West division.
Returning Offensive Starters: 5 (FL, C, RT, QB, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 8 (RDE, LDT, LDE, RLB, MLB, RCB, LCB, FS)
Returning Specialists: 1 (PK)
Projected Overall Record: 10-2 (UA, LSU)
Projected SEC Record: 6-2 (UA, LSU)
Projected SEC West Record: 3-2 (UA, LSU)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Running Backs: Vg
Wide Receivers: Vg
Offensive Line: Fr
Defensive Line: Vg
Defensive Backs: Av
Special Teams: Vg
Houston Nutt gave the Rebels an identity last year, and that identity was of a tough, bruising football team that could also mix in enough trickery to keep defenses on their heels. This year, he’ll need to work some miracles up front, as a shaky offensive line threatens to undo the Rebels’ potent ground attack and allow more pressure to get to quarterback Jevan Snead. Ole Miss’ base philosophy is an I-based attack that punishes defenses, but the coaches also mix in a healthy dose of the Wildcat formation and typically put the ball in receiver Dexter McCluster’s hands to give the team a change of pace.
Jevan Snead’s first year in the SEC went about as well as could be expected. Snead passed for 2,762 yards and had twice as many touchdowns (26) as interceptions (13). He’s a strong-armed, mobile quarterback who fell into a leadership role early on in the year and turned out to be one of the league’s best at the position. With a thin quarterback class in the SEC this year, Snead figures to only improve upon his intangibles and perhaps his performance as well. The fact that Snead is one of the few playmakers at quarterback in the SEC this year also helps.
Backing up Snead is redshirt freshman Nathan Stanley, who beat out senior Billy Tapp for the job in the spring. Both Stanley and Tapp are capable backups, giving Ole Miss not only a good starter at the position, but rare depth as well. True freshman Raymond Cotton is probably the team’s quarterback of the future, but he’ll likely redshirt in 2009.
Some of the best depth anywhere on the team is here, where Brandon Bolden and Cordera Eason figure to split the position. The two combined for almost 1,200 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2008. Enrique Davis provides further depth, but he didn’t have the same luck running the ball as Bolden and Eason did in 2008, averaging below 4.0 yards per carry.
Receiver Dexter McCluster will move to tailback on occasion to give Ole Miss some speed, and also plays quarterback in the Wildcat formation. Derrick Davis also gives Ole Miss another big-back option off the bench, and at fullback. Andy Hartmann will take over for Jason Cook at fullback, and he has big shoes to fill, as Cook was one of the more underrated players in the SEC last year.
Nutt has done a good job turning virtually all his running backs into double – and sometimes triple – threats, and each player seems to do a good job of running downhill. This is a tough bunch of backs who back down from no one, and defenses that don’t like physical runners will not like this bunch.
Although Ole Miss lost Mike Wallace to the NFL, the Rebels still return a cache of talented, fast receivers who bring a variety of skills to the table. Shay Hodge is one of the conference’s elder statesmen, and he led the Rebels in receiving last year, catching 44 passes for 725 yards (16.5 avg.) and 8 touchdowns.
Dexter McCluster will move up to a full-time starter this year after spending last year as sort of a super-sub, but he’ll still move to running back at times. Lionel Breaux and Markeith Summers will get the first chance to step into key reserve roles after spending last year as bit players. Summers in particular has skills. Andrew Harris adds depth.
True freshman Terrell Grant could make some noise. At tight end, longtime sub Gerald Harris steps in as the new starter. Harris is a good blocker and showed good hands in limited action last year, so Ole Miss should be fine. The problem figures to come when Ole Miss wants to go with a two-tight end look, or if Harris gets hurt. Ferbia Allen and E.J. Epperson are the two top backups, but both are freshmen and Allen is a bit light for the position.
Here’s what will hold Ole Miss back in 2009, and many prognosticators have looked directly over it in a rush to anoint Ole Miss the next big thing. The loss of Michael Oher cannot be denied, nor can the fallout from the loss of both starting guards.
Center Daverin Geralds returns, as does right tackle John Jerry. Senior Reid Neely figures to step in at one of the two guard positions. Jerry is a fine player, but Geralds is just adequate and the key left tackle position was unsettled coming out of spring. Sophomore Bradley Sowell held the job heading into fall camp, but incoming freshman Bobbie Massie figures to get every shot at winning the job. Another sophomore, Rishaw Johnson, came out of spring camp the leader at the right guard slot.
A pair of seniors, Mark Jean-Louis and Brandon Green, figure to be the top backups at the center and guard slots, respectively. Alex Washington provides depth at tackle along with JUCO transfer Logan Clair, but the coaches are really hoping Massie wins the job, as none of these names are truly inspiring. The line looked sub-par in the spring, which is doubly worrisome considering Ole Miss’ interior defensive tackles aren’t exactly stellar. This could turn out to be one of the worst lines in the conference.
Houston Nutt got serious about toughness, and in his first year at Ole Miss, the Rebels finished second to Alabama and fourth nationally in run defense. Unfortunately, the Rebels were dead last in the SEC in pass defense. The Rebels will operate out of a 4-3 look, and it may fall to the linebacker corps to take on a greater role on more downs considering the weakness of the secondary and the lack of depth there. Nutt likes to blitz and take chances, and up front, he’ll have the horses to do it off the corner. The biggest question is consistency up the middle.
As much noise as has been made about the loss of Michael Oher on offense, many tend to forget that Peria Jerry was just as important to the Rebels’ success on defense. Jerry is in the NFL now, and Ole Miss finds itself fielding a defensive line that is probably the strongest in the conference off the edge, but questionable inside.
First, the good: All three of the team’s top defensive ends return. Marcus Tillman and Kentrell Lockett are essentially co-starters, and both players present nightmare matchups with their speed and ability to get to the quarterback. But the real name to watch is Greg Hardy, who can be the best defensive end in the country if he applies himself. Hardy’s somewhat erratic behavior and inconsistent play drove Ole Miss coaches so batty last year that Lockett took his starting job, then Hardy pulled his own shocker by not jumping to the NFL a year early. When he’s on, no one can block him, not even the SEC’s best offensive tackles.
The issue here for Ole Miss are the interior players. Ted Laurent and Lawon Scott are role players for any other contender, but they’ve been thrust into starting roles here. If Jerrell Powe can keep his motor up and his weight down, he figures to be able to take over the role Jerry played last year, but so far Powe has been a bust. Justin Smith adds depth, along with LaMark Armour, who will play both tackle and end. Emmanuel Stephens offers more experience behind Tillman, Hardy and Lockett.
Recruiting brought Ole Miss just one top defensive lineman, but it was a big one: end Craig Drummond, who could play inside or out and do it from day one.
No group overachieved more for the 2008 Ole Miss Rebels than the linebacker corps, which returns virtually intact. Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker will start, while last year’s top sub, Patrick Trahan, takes over the job vacated by Ashlee Palmer. Experienced outside backer Lamar Brumfield also returns. Beyond that, however, it gets a little dicey, as freshmen dot the landscape.
Jason Jones grabbed one of the reserve positions in the spring and figures to hold onto it. Marques Jenkins and a host of other players, including converted defensive backs Lekenwic Haynes, Brandon Sanders and signee D.T. Shackelford, are in the mix for playing time. The starters are athletic and Brumfield has the experience, but injuries could be devastating.
Three starters are back from the SEC’s worst pass defense in 2008, which means the experience means very little. Cassius Vaughn and Marshay Green have speed on the corner, but neither has natural cover instincts. Green, in particular, is prone to give up the big play. Kendrick Lewis and Johnny Brown figure to be the starting safeties. Lewis is the best Ole Miss has, and with a strong year might actually get a NFL team interested. But Brown is a part-time player at best trying to fill a starting role.
The suspension of Jamar Hornsby on theft charges takes away a player Ole Miss coaches were hoping could push Brown. Now that job falls to sophomore Derrick Herman, who has yet to really capture anyone’s attention. Reserve corners Marcus Temple and Jeremy McGee are both undersized and without great catch-up speed, while Fon Ingram tries to hold off Jared Mitchell for the reserve free safety slot. Ingram will probably be the team’s nickel. This group just doesn’t inspire much confidence, and if spring practice was any indication, there hasn’t been a lot of improvement made.
Joshua Shene is an underrated placekicker. He hit 17 of 21 field goals in 2008, with all but one miss coming from long distances, and hit every extra point. Justin Sparks is the new punter; he has leg strength to spare but can also shank one with the best of them. Punt and kick returns were a team strength in 2008, but Mike Wallace must be replaced on kick returns. Marshay Green handles the punt returns, while it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the do-everything McCluster handle kickoff returns. Nutt’s teams always seem to be solid in the kicking game and the 2009 Rebels should be no different.