By Chuck Rounsaville
Ole Miss Spirit
After one of the most startling turnarounds in the country in 2008, to say the Rebel nation is stoked about the 2009 version of Ole Miss football is an understatement.
And why not?
The Rebels have 17 starters returning off a 9-4 campaign that included defeating national champion Florida in the Swamp for the only blemish on the Gators' worksheet and a season-ending "upset" of No. 7 Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl.
First-year coach Houston Nutt masterminded a 180-degree turn in the Rebs' mentality and transformed them from losers to winners in one fell swoop. It's amazing what a dose of confidence and positive thinking can do.
The nuts and bolts of the Ole Miss squad starts under center with junior quarterback Jevan Snead, who should be even better the second time around in the offensive system, but the star power doesn't stop there. Jack-of-all-trades and master of most everything on a football field Dexter McCluster, now that Percy Harvin is in the NFL, will arguably be the most dynamic player in the SEC. The Rebs also have a full stable of competent running backs, three returning starters on the offensive line, a tight end (Gerald Harris) who caught two TD passes in the Cotton Bowl and a bevy of quality wideouts led by Mr. Reliable, senior Shay Hodge.
The biggest concern on the offensive side of the ball is replacing two starters at key positions on the line, but that issue was satisfactorily addressed in spring training with the emergence of sophomore left tackle Bradley Sowell and sophomore right guard Rishaw Johnson, two excellent, strong athletes who started to understand the difference in being an every-down player and a sub as spring wore down. Both need to continue evolving, but the signs at the end of spring were positive.
Depth at some offensive positions, namely on the offensive line and at tight end, are issues, but Nutt and his staff are confident those holes can be filled during August practice.
While the offense is expected to be as potent as it was in 2008, the 2009 Rebel defense may be much-improved under the direction of defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix. During spring, it was not uncommon to see the Ole Miss defense control the Reb offense, which none of the Rebs' opponents were able to do during the last six games of the season.
Yes, the defense lost one of its all-time greats in defensive tackle Peria Jerry, but nine starters – now more mature and more in tune with Nix's system – are back.
The defensive line is two-deep with proven players, including All-America candidate Greg Hardy, who had offseason foot surgery and is expected to be healthy and dominant in fall coming off the edge at the rush end position.
The linebacker unit needs to develop a little more depth, but the top four have successfully performed in the line of fire and boast a fully-blossomed Patrick Trahan at one outside slot.
Last season, the secondary struggled early on, especially at cornerback, but a year of experience under their belts has proven to be a valuable commodity they built on in spring. The group came out of the other end of spring training as trustworthy and effective.
There are need areas. Depth at offensive line and tight end needs to develop. An additional linebacker or two would be a good thing. Another burner wideout would not hurt the overall cause. Continued development of some "new" starters would warm the Rebs' chances. All are doable.
The Rebels concluded 2008 as one of the hottest teams in the country. There does not seem to be much reason for them to cool down in 2009.
With a favorable home schedule, plenty of proven players returning, star power at key positions, a newfound air of confidence and Nutt and his staff calling the shots, why shouldn't everyone involved with Rebel football be excited?