Rivalry Renewed

HOOVER, Ala. -- The question was innocent enough. Then the question grew, taking on a life of its own in the main room of The Wynfrey hotel, home of the 2011 version of Southeastern Conference Media Days.

A writer referenced Dan Mullen, the head coach of in-state rival Mississippi State. Mullen took the podium Thursday, and mentioned a collection of billboards throughout Mississippi. Mississippi State claims ownership ("This is Our State") of the state in those billboards, as has been widely reported.

"You checked recruiting this past season, right?" Nutt said, and the open salvo was fired.

Ole Miss signed 15 players from Mississippi in the signing class of 2011, including highly-coveted prospects Nicholas Brassell, Tobias Singleton and C.J. Johnson. Brassell and Johnson, it should be noted, were both committed to Mississippi State at different times in the recruiting process.

It was the first of a flurry of questions regarding the passionate rivalry between the schools, and the story became one of the most asked about here Friday. Players Brandon Bolden, Kentrell Lockett and Bradley Sowell were also asked of the billboards and losing to Mississippi State in back-to-back years.

Brandon Bolden
Ben Garrett
Lockett brushed off the billboards. "It's words," he said. But he acknowledged the importance of winning the annual Egg Bowl.

"It's pretty much bragging rights for the state. You want to win to have bragging rights for that year. You want to win every game; it's just that you're in Mississippi. It's divided. You have Mississippi State fans and you have Ole Miss fans. It's intense. You want to win that game just to walk lightly on campus. If you lose to Mississippi State, the faculty, your fellow students look at you."

Bolden finds humor in the billboards. He isn't sweating them much.

"Everybody in Oxford thinks it's funny, especially me," Bolden said. "If this is your state, then why isn't the state capital there? Why does everybody else go to Ole Miss? It's just funny looking at the billboards. It's all talk right now."

Sowell has heard all the talk before. He's played in the rivalry going on four seasons.

"It's a big deal. In my career, we haven't been real successful with Mississippi State, which is surprising with some of the teams we've had. You want to win that game. It's the last game of the year. It's the Egg Bowl. Two straight losses to them, that usually doesn't happen. You really want to win that one, for sure."

A vibrant thing:

This time a year ago, Lockett was attending his first SEC Media Days -- the headliner of three players on a team entering a season with high expectations after back-to-back Cotton Bowl wins.

For Lockett, 2011 was supposed to be a monster year. But it wasn't. He missed the season-opener against Jacksonville State (an eventual loss) with an irregular heartbeat. Two games later, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

Ole Miss went 4-8 in his absence.

"I've grown so much mentally since last year, since when the injury occurred," Lockett said. "It wasn't even much a physical injury for me. It was more mentally, not being able to do anything. Now I have a different prospective, just a whole new way of playing the game. This one play could be your last, so I'm having fun and giving it 110 percent no matter what, because you might be one play away."

A year later, Lockett was back to form. He was energetic, cracking jokes and drawing a crowd in the front of the room. He's no longer focused on his knee. Rather, he's simply ready to begin his senior season.

Lockett was granted a sixth year of eligibility in April.

"I'm not worried about it at all. I'm not even going to think about it," he said. "I really don't even think about my knee, think about the injury, until people ask me about it. I'm just completely blocking it out. I don't want to harp on it; I just want to get back to playing ball. Any worries, any problems, I'm not even worried about it."

Kentrell Lockett
Ben Garrett
Ole Miss, according to head coach Houston Nutt, has its leader back.

"Means so much to get (him) back," Nutt said. "He is a tremendous leader for us. He does so much with his teammates. He's a winner. I think he's just about there. According to our doctors, he's just about 100 percent, so we expect him to be full go the first game."

"That's big. We need his leadership, we need him at d-end, for sure," Sowell said of the return of Lockett. "He's done really good, his knees are doing really good. I'm glad we've got him back, for sure."

Youth is served:

Ole Miss was picked by media here in Birmingham to finish last in the SEC West. No surprise, really, considering the youth littered throughout its roster.

Lockett likened the off-season strength and conditioning program, "somewhat to babysitting." An appropriate comparison. Ole Miss is replacing only 10 starters, but six on a defense that ranked near the bottom in most statistical categories.

"It's somewhat babysitting, but it's somewhat showing them what they need to do and show them what to expect," Lockett said of the young players. "They're just coming from high school. They were all chatty and laughing and smiles the first summer (term). But now it's getting closer to camp. You can tell everybody's getting scared. No one's talking. Not everybody's as vibrant as they were before. They don't know what to expect. This is their first college camp, they don't know what to do. They just listen to what we say. We've been through it already. Football is football, man."

Of all the new players expected to contribute, arguably no signee is more important than Johnson, a U.S. Army All-American. D.T. Shackelford, the most highly-regarded player defensively, suffered a torn ACL during spring practices.

Nutt said, by default, Johnson will line up with the second team defense come fall practices.

"We're going to give him every opportunity," Nutt said. "C.J. Johnson doesn't look like a guy just coming out of high school. Physically, he looks the part. So I'm excited about him. We'll give him every opportunity to get in the mix."

Lockett said he and the rest of the veterans will help the newcomers along.

"Just tell them football is football. That's all you can tell ‘em," he said. "You're going to be afraid. You're going to get the jitters. You're going to get the butterflies in your stomach. If you don't, you're not a real football player, ‘cause you're supposed to get that every Saturday. You're supposed to feel some type of feeling in your stomach. If you don't, something ain't right."

Winning formula:

Ole Miss lacked in chemistry last season. That much was evident, even to Sowell, one of the team's unquestioned leaders.

Maybe it was the loss to Jacksonville State. Maybe it was a collection of players from various backgrounds not quite coming together. Or maybe, just maybe, those well-documented off-the-field issues played a part.

"I think we had some tough breaks. The first game, I don't know if anybody handled a situation like that before. It kind of got in between us a little bit. There's some issues with that," Sowell said. "But this year, we've been so much better in the off-season. We're a lot different team. We're a lot closer. I think we'll be able to handle anything this year together."

Much of the change in attitude has come this off-season with Nutt and staff's emphasis on accountability throughout the program.

Bradley Sowell
Ben Garrett
"People have really bought in," Sowell said. "They know you're either going to get in or get out. We've done all the activities together as a team. We're a lot closer this year."

Sowell has played a big part. He's come a long way since his sophomore season, when a disappointing performance and postgame meeting with reporters at South Carolina could have sent his career spiraling.

Sowell was named first team All-SEC by league media in Birmingham, the last of many preseason awards for Ole Miss' starting left tackle. Sowell also earned spots on the Lombardi and Outland trophy watch lists.

"You've seen a big growth in Brad," Bolden, his running back, said. "Brad, it's just a growth. You see a guy who went from watching on the sideline to getting in there, and after all that happened, he became the man. Brad knew that he had to step up to the challenge. He knew he had to get better. He's that type of guy -- a self-motivating guy. He did a great job with that. I'm proud of him."

"It's an honor. With all I've been through, it's my solvent way of saying that I wasn't going to give up," Sowell said. "I had a rough start. It's my way of answering the call; answering all the challenges I've been given."

Sowell acknowledged his early struggles. He's learned from them.

"It's been a process. It's like anything; you're not really good until you get your hands on it," he said. "I've had time to work at my craft and do stuff like that. I've just gotten better and better. I'm the type of guy that's never going to decline. If I ever start going down, that's when I'll stop playing. That's just the kind of guy I am."

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