A Matter of Trust

For three years, Houston Nutt didn't have to worry. The numbers were there; established, productive players filling out his two-deep at defensive tackle.

Peria Jerry. Jerrell Powe. Ted Laurent. Lawon Scott. Each was a mainstay in the rotation at some point in their career. Nutt simply had to pick one, any of the four, and he had a player with a wealth of experience in the Southeastern Conference.

No more.

Justin Smith, an injury-riddled junior, and sophomore Corey Gaines are listed as starters two days into Ole Miss' allotted 15 spring practices. Neither has started a game in college. And the rotation only gets more muddled from there.

Freshmen Carlton Martin and Bryon Bennett, junior college transfer Gilbert Pena and junior Taurus Ward are pretty much it until fall practices, when a few players signed in the recruiting class of 2011, arrive on campus.

"It's different," Smith said. "Since my freshman year, we've always had dominant defensive tackles on the inside. But I look forward to the opportunity of becoming one of those guys and helping the team out next year."

Gilbert Pena
Chuck Rounsaville
Smith, the veteran of the bunch, has 22 game appearances to his credit. But the 6-foot-3, 290-pound Smith has twice broken his foot. The second break left Smith inactive for months, when he "didn't do anything."

"It was tough," he said. "I was so far behind. But I'm happy I'm finally getting this opportunity. Everything happens for a reason. It's made me a little more hungry, and I know I haven't managed to get a redshirt, so I have one more season to kind of make a name for myself and hopefully raise my stock to make it to the next level."

Gaines -- weighing in at 305 pounds, his ideal weight, and standing 6-foot-1 -- was heavily recruited out of Godby High School in Tallahassee, Fla., two years ago. Still, he's yet to make an impact, seeing limited action last season following a redshirt year in 2009.

"It wasn't that bad, because I kind of learned from Powe, Ted and Lawon," Gaines said of sitting out. "Mainly, it was just a learning experience -- learning how to do drills, learning how to read blocks and everything. While those guys were here, they taught me a lot. I was a student and they were the teachers."

The development of the defensive tackles -- or the defensive line as a whole, for that matter -- is an ongoing storyline this spring, and is sure to carry over into the fall. Ole Miss struggled mightily defensively last season, ranking near the bottom of the conference in most statistical categories.

It starts with Smith and Gaines, two long-tenured backups being asked to take the step from situational players to every-day starters simultaneously.

"In all honesty, last year, they didn't get a lot of opportunities on the field," defensive line coach Terry Price said. "We had some older guys at that position a year ago. They had some spot play last year, did some decent things. But, really, this is their first time to get out here and get some meaningful reps. So far, they've accepted the challenge.

"Thursday's the day when you put pads on and see just how physical they can be. (Defensive tackle) is the most physical position on defense. They've got to really anchor down and come off and strike folks."

"Tight race" at quarterback:

Nathan Stanley is an upperclassman now, months removed from the frustrations of last season, when he opened the year as Ole Miss' starting quarterback only to give way to Jeremiah Masoli.

However, like last spring, when he battled the since-departed Raymond Cotton for first-team honors under center, Stanley again has to win a job. This time, though, he's being challenged by three other players, not one.

Nathan Stanley
Bruce Newman
Stanley, transfers Barry Brunetti and Zack Stoudt and junior Randall Mackey are all vying for the affection of Nutt and offensive coordinator David Lee. Lee, who took over for Dave Radar, has brought over a new system, evening the playing field.

"It's really tight. Coach Lee's bringing a whole new system in and it's leveled everyone out," Stanley said. "To me, everyone seems to be picking it up pretty evenly. It's a really tight competition."

Stanley considered transferring after the trials of last season. But he later opted to stay and compete in a wide-open competition. He has the most experience of the four, having been in the program for three seasons. But he doesn't have a leg up.

It's almost back to square one.

"There's always pressure when you have competition, especially when you've got four guys that are really going for the job," he said. "There's always competition. There's kind of an advantage of being in the system as far as it's still some of the old stuff; it's still some of the old kinks. But it's also a lot of brand-new stuff."

The team was again in shorts and shirts Tuesday, a better day all around for Stanley. The first day "was real rough on me," he said. He was rusty. Returning to practice, the routine, takes some getting used to.

"I was kind of real down on myself after yesterday's practice, but I feel like I improved it today," he said. "I did a little better today, as far as making some better reads, some better throws. Still got a long ways to go, though."

And he'll have to travel that long way with Brunetti, Mackey and Stoudt nipping at his heels. Ole Miss fans are familiar with Mackey, a dual-threat quarterback who has impressed with his accuracy and athleticism.

Brunetti and Stoudt, however, are unfamiliar, their games undefined. Brunetti, reportedly, is similar to Mackey. Stoudt is a traditional drop-back passer, similar to that of Stanley.

"Barry and Zack, those guys can play. Barry's really athletic, really talented and he can throw. Zack, Zack's really smart, makes good reads. He's got a really strong arm. Those guys can really play. I'm impressed," Stanley said.

A Matter of Trust:

Now hanging from the wall of the indoor practice facility is "The Circle of Champions," a sign created by Nutt and staff to hold players accountable on and off the field.

Are you in the "Circle of Champions?"
Bruce Newman
The sign was an idea bred by the team's 4-8 record last season and the noted off-the-field troubles of some of the players. A number of players were suspended or dismissed for various violations of team rules.

"What that means is we want everybody doing (things) the right way," Nutt said. "We didn't think we did things the right way consistently (last season) -- we assumed, we took for granted. When you have Dexter McCluster and Michael Oher and guys like that, you just assumed that (the players) would keep doing what's been done. But it didn't happen."

In January, each player was asked to choose a partner. If a given partner messes up -- misses a class, oversleeps workouts, etc. -- both players are punished. "You both run," Nutt said, later mentioning that those punishments are carried out at 5:30 a.m. on Fridays.

Those players are then placed outside "The Circle of Champions," into another circle, colored blue, named "The Circle of Untrustables." Other mistake(s) lands said players in the final circle, "The Circle of the Uncommitted," colored red.

Only four players out of 121 on the roster are currently outside the original circle.

"A lot of it is your teammate. I see a starter up there and it might not necessarily be him; could be his teammate. But that's what team is. They don't penalize one guy, they penalize 11," Nutt said. "Our whole message was, we want committed guys in a circle of excellence, and here's how you stay there. It's real simple: you do what's right. If you don't, there's going to be a penalty, and it's costly.

"That's been a real message. It's been good."

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