Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt saw it coming.
After back-to-back Cotton Bowl victories, he knew a lot of the stalwarts on the 2008 and 2009 teams would be leaving.
Replace, regroup and reload was the spring training battle cry.
Once the Rebels hit the practice fields in March, the veteran mentor realized at least half of the team’s equation – the defense – could be very good and that was half the battle.
“Our defense came together in spring training. It looks like we have a good front seven and our back end people got better as spring progressed,” assessed Nutt, now in his third year as the Rebel mentor. “We’re older and more mature on defense. We have good leadership and most of those guys have been in a lot of battles.”
Up front is a good place to start, with recognizable names like tackle Jerrell Powe, end Kentrell Lockett and tackles Ted Laurent and Lawon Scott handling the bulk of the trench work. Newcomer end Wayne Dorsey, a Juco transfer, also showed his mettle in spring to help solidify the front four.
At linebacker, three-year starters Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker anchor the second line of defense. Aided by dynamic sophomores Joel Kight and D.T. Shackelford, the Rebs have a solid mix of veteran know-how and youthful exuberance.
“We need to develop a little more depth at defensive end and outside linebacker, but we’re pleased with where we are in the defensive trenches,” Nutt continued.
In the secondary, only one starter – strong safety Johnny Brown – returns, but corners Jeremy McGee and Marcus Temple and free safety Fon Ingram have played a lot of football for the Rebels in the past couple of years. Add in redshirt freshman cornerback Charles Sawyer, who the coaches are raving about, and Juco transfer safety Damien Jackson, a headhunter who thrives on contact, and the secondary shaped up nicely in spring.
On the offensive side, things were not quite as fluid.
The Rebels are replacing players like tailback Dexter McCluster, offensive guard John Jerry, wide receiver Shay Hodge, center Daverin Geralds and quarterback Jevan Snead, who opted to jump to the NFL one year early.
“Those guys – and several more – made a lot of plays for us in the past two years,” Nutt said. “We knew this day was coming, and we have prepared ourselves for it the best we could, but it’s tough looking out there and not seeing some of those guys.”
Nutt has no major issues with the physical talent available, but the experience and maturity factors have made him toss and turn a bit at night.
“Up the middle, we’ve got a new center, a new left guard, a relatively new right guard, a new quarterback, a new fullback and we’re playing without #22 (McCluster, a second-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs) at tailback,” Nutt noted.
The hand that’s been dealt, and dealt with, starts up front.
Center A.J. Hawkins, right guard Rishaw Johnson and left guard Alex Washington came out of spring as the number ones right up the gut of the offense. While they showed progress, there is still some physical and mental maturation that has to take place for them to be finished products.
The bright side up front is the return of tackles Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie, a pair of bookend 6-7, 300-plus pounders with experience.
At quarterback, sophomore Nathan Stanley emerged as the spring No. 1, but redshirt freshman Raymond Cotton, who had shoulder issues in spring, showed he can be a playmaker as well. The extensive practice reps Stanley got lifted his confidence and productivity. He’s a work in progress, but spring was a good start.
At tailback, the Rebs have a variety to choose from, starting with jack-of-all- trades Brandon Bolden, Enrique Davis – who closed spring strong, Rodney Scott, Derrick Herman and Korvic Neat. The first three are the pounders, the last two are the speedsters.
Wideout was a mixed bag of good days and bad days. Seniors Markeith Summers and Lionel Breaux add stability and experience while sophomore Jesse Grandy, also the return specialist, adds some flair.
“We’ve got more work to do, obviously, but from a spring viewpoint, we showed we can be a good defense and we made good progress on offense,” Nutt closed. “We need an excellent summer for some of these younger guys we are counting on to get stronger, and we may have to rely on some newcomers more quickly than we would like to, but we feel pretty good about where we are right now.”
saw it coming. Replace, regroup and reload.