"In our spring practice our defense set the pace." he claims. Such is the case at SEC Media Days where every many teams are showing confidence that they have what it takes to make a run at the conference title.
However, for a team that gave up 375 yards and 28 points per game last season Cutcliffe's statement certainly seems odd. Especially when you notice that the Rebels have to replace starting tackles Kenny Jackson and Anthony Sims, along with cornerback starters Syniker Taylor and Justin Coleman. Expected to fill the void on the defensive line are redshirt freshmen Michael Bozeman and former McAdory High star McKinley Boykin. And at corner are seniors Matt Grier and Chris Knight, who have both played as reserves but will now be counted on heavily.
Along with all of those challenges the Rebels had to hire Chuck Driesbach as the second new defensive coordinator of the offseason when the first hire, Reggie Herring, a former Auburn linebacker coach and Clemson defensive coordinator, bolted from Oxford before the waitress at the local café could warm up his coffee.
With two coordinator hires in one offseason the Rebels had a lot of work to do and Cutcliffe noted that they got it done very quickly. "We put our entire defensive system in during our 15 days of spring practice," he told the media on Wednesday.
Yet, on offense the Rebels seem to be well stocked heading into the season. Here the Rebels return super junior Eli Manning, who threw for 2,984 yards and 31 touchdowns last season.
Cutcliffe says there is one thing to take care of at quarterback even with a player like Manning returning. "One of the challenges with playing a veteran quarterback is keeping them from feeling like they have to do too much." Cutcliffe should know after coaching another Manning, Peyton, at Tennessee.
To keep Manning safe and comfy in the pocket Ole Miss returns four starters from last year's offensive line that led the SEC in fewest sacks allowed with only 10. Still Cutcliffe says he wants even more quality depth. "I told coach (John) Latina, I want three starting guards and three starting tackles."
The Rebels will also have a lot of returning talent at wide receiver. Where Chris Collins, Jason Armsted and Bill Flowers will continue to catch passes from the youngest Manning in what will be one of the best passing offenses in the league this season.
The biggest question mark for Ole Miss in 2002 on offense will be at both running back positions. With the loss of tailback Joe Gunn and fullback Charles Stackhouse the Rebels will have a lot of firepower to replace. They will look to rarely used senior Robert Williams at tailback and Toward Samford at the fullback spot to pick up the slack.
There is certainly a different look in Gainesville, Fla., heading into the 2002 season. The old head ball coach left for the greener pastures of the NFL. However, he was quickly replaced by the former Florida and New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Ron Zook, a man who should be familiar with the pressures and attention to detail that come with the Florida job.
When Steve Spurrier bolted for the Washington Redskins his current star quarterback, junior Rex Grossman, heard about it in a strange way. Not seeing it coming he found out about it the way most SEC fans did as well.
"I saw it on TV," Grossman says. "It was a complete shock to me."
However, despite the departure of Spurrier, Grossman decided to stick around for his junior season and what a relief that must have been to Zook. Last season the Heisman runnerup put up ridiculous numbers throwing for 3,986 yards and 34 touchdowns in guiding the Gators to a record of 10-2 and thrashing of Maryland in the Orange Bowl.
Even with the coaching change Grossman says he is excited about the prospects for the 2002 Gators' team. "We have got a lot of confidence in our coaching staff and I've got a lot of confidence in our players so I don't see why we can't have a similar team."
During SEC Media Days most of the coaches fielded a lot of different questions about their teams and on the type of squad they expect to field for the 2002 season. However, for Zook most of the questions revolved around the comparison and contrast of himself to Coach Spurrier. One reporter even asked Zook if he planned on wearing a visor on the sidelines during games. "Only if it rains and only if the sun is in my eyes," Zook explained. "And if it rains it's a hat I'll be wearing."
During his interview session Zook noted that his practice schedule was tough. " I feel like you can get three hours worth of work done in two hours." The new Gator coach says getting a lot done in short period of time is his trademark. "I always say that if you sleep four hours fast it is like sleeping eight hours."