Open Season

Heat and all, Ole Miss players report to campus starting today with the first practice of fall scheduled for Saturday. What should we expect? Let's take a look.

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The view from a window, any window, here in Oxford is easy enough. The sun's shining almost each and every day, the grass glistening green and the skies as blue as ever.

Step outside, though, and it's a completely different story.

It's hot, folks. Blistering hot. Miserably hot. Wrath-of-God hot. August is here in full force, wreaking havoc on each of our sudoriferous glands with its 100-plus temperatures and heat indexes. But the unrelenting heat is a sign of football, I suppose. College football fans everywhere get excited this time of year, no matter the gallons of Gatorade consumed during a mid-day trip to the grocery store just to stay cool.

Ole Miss players report this week, starting with the newcomers today. A star-studded class of freshmen and junior college transfers report to the indoor practice facility, with all eyes on such names as Nickolas Brassell, C.J. Johnson, Tobias Singleton and Senquez Golson.

This is easily the most important class in Houston Nutt's tenure as Ole Miss head coach. A handful, if not a majority, will surely see the field early and play key roles in the team's success or failure. Of most importance, perhaps, are linebackers Johnson, Keith Lewis and Serderius Bryant. Junior D.T. Shackelford tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in spring practices, and is likely to miss the 2011-12 season. The oft-troubled Clarence Jackson has since been (predictably) dismissed, as well, leaving a unit limited in numbers.

Brunetti or Mackey? We'll find out soon
Associated Press

They'll all be here today, even safety Aaron Garbutt, who was the last eligibility concern. He was cleared by the NCAA clearinghouse last week, joining a class filled with potential contributors on both sides of the ball.

The arrival of new faces almost always energizes a fanbase, the equivalent of your favorite Major League Baseball team acquiring that exciting, missing piece at the trade deadline. Oftentimes those returning players are afterthoughts, at least in the early weeks of August.

Because every fan is eager to learn the number of newcomer X, right?

But, alas, we're obligated to look to the returners. They'll arrive Friday, a day prior to Ole Miss' opening practice Saturday at 4:30 p.m. All first-week practices (August 6-12) are open to the public. Come join us as we sweat and complain of heat exhaustion! (Sarcasm off.)

Storylines are abundant this fall, with a three-man race (or, really, a two-man race, if Nutt's words this summer are any indication) at quarterback headlining the group. Barry Brunetti, Randall Mackey and Zach Stoudt will soon duke it out for starting rights under center in place of the now-departed Jeremiah Masoli.

Of course, we can't forget the defensive line, a unit that lost all four of its contributing defensive tackles last season. And the linebackers. And the defensive backs. Man, defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix has a whale of a job on his hands.

We'll get more into that later on. For now, sit back in the air-conditioned room of your choice as we spend the next four weeks detailing each step of Ole Miss' path to its season opener against BYU.

Hey, Chuck, pass the water bottle.

Offensive Player to Watch
Jeff Scott – Running Back
I know, surprising, but it would have been far too easy to put one of the three quarterbacks here. Instead, let's focus on Jeff Scott, a shifty Dexter McCluster sort. Brandon Bolden is undoubtedly the team's primary offensive weapon, but with Scott Ole Miss has a potential game-changer. He's faster than most and deceptively sharp in his cuts. The rub, though, is his lack of touches in the passing game. Nutt and staff attempted to get Scott involved more last season, especially late. However, he managed just five catches and 25 yards and no touchdowns. On the ground, he was good for 429 yards and three scores. What made McCluster so deadly was his ability to catch balls out of the backfield and make plays in space. That's what Scott has to become, and it would help immensely if such an added dimension came in 2011. The Rebels are breaking in a fairly new wide receiver corps outside of Melvin Harris and Ja-Mes Logan. While solid, they've never handled the workman's share of, say, Shay Hodge or even Markeith Summers. Scott's emergence could be huge in turning what seems a weakness into a strength. And quickly.

2010 Stats: ATT: 66 / YDS: 429 / TD: 3 / REC: 5 / YDS: 25

Defensive Player to Watch
Charles Sawyer – Cornerback
Charles Sawyer wasn't bad last season, just sporadic. He flashed his immense potential in some games but fell apart in others, showing his susceptibility to deep passes. Maybe the culprit was inexperience. I mean, he's just now entering his sophomore season. As a redshirt freshman, he finished sixth on the team with 49 total tackles. He had a pedestrian two interceptions. Prior to 2010, Sawyer was billed as the next big thing in the Ole Miss secondary, the cornerback expected to take a noticeable step towards all-league caliber player. It didn't happen. Not to say that he won't become great in time, mind you. He's young and clearly talented. This has to be the year, though, simply because Ole Miss can ill-afford to have its secondary struggle as it did last season. In a perfect world, Sawyer becomes that shutdown corner. Realistically, his contributions will likely fall somewhere in the middle. But as long as his game moves forward and he's consistent (unlike a year ago) he'll have shown improvement. A welcomed sight, since that's what the secondary sorely needs: consistency.

2010 Stats: TOT: 49 / SOLO: 36 / TFL: 1.0 / FF: 0 / INT: 2

Picks to Click:

1: Defensive Line

Ole Miss lost four starters at defensive tackle and its most decorated player, senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett, is fresh off a major knee injury. Wayne Dorsey, who opened the 2010 season as a starter, struggled with the jump from junior college to big-time college football. For Ole Miss to improve of its porous defensive showing last season, the defensive line has to be better. Jerrell Powe is gone. So is Lawon Scott. And Ted Laurent. And LaMark Armour.

Welcome back, Lockett. Now go sack a quarterback
Ole Miss

Defensive end Jason Jones made strides as a junior, and returns as one of the team's veteran leaders. Plenty of focus will be on youngsters Bryon Bennett and Carlton Martin, as well as junior college transfers Uriah Grant and Gilbert Pena.

Ben's Pick to Click: DT Uriah Grant

2: Quarterbacks

OK, we have to address those quarterbacks. Let's be honest, quarterback is the prize position. Chicks dig a quarterback as much as the long ball. So here's looking at Brunetti, Mackey and Stoudt, an inexperienced trio entering the fall with a fierce battle on their hands.

I've long considered Mackey the frontrunner to start the opener against BYU. He's been in the system longer, he's the most accurate quarterback on the roster and he's developed a rapport with leading receivers Logan and Harris.

But Nutt has continually praised Brunetti this summer. Multiple times Nutt has indicated Brunetti would be his starter if the season started today. Stoudt, it seems, is an afterthought. Honestly, that's not a surprise, simply because Brunetti and Mackey fit Nutt's scheme better. They're mobile. They can throw on the run. They're option-read types, a la Masoli. Stoudt is the long shot to win the job. He's a traditional drop-back passer. And it certainly didn't help that he was held out of the spring game in April for academic-related discipline. Who wins the job? We'll see, but if asked to predict the winner…

Ben's Pick to Click: QB Randall Mackey

3: Wide Receivers

I briefly addressed the wide receivers earlier, but the importance of this group can't be overstated. Logan and Harris are the clear No. 1 and No. 2. Flip-flop them if you like. Regardless of order, they're the top two. The intrigue lies in the freshmen class, where Ole Miss loaded up in February.

Brassell is the sexy pick to breakout. He's one of the more highly-touted signees in the class of 2012, his credentials as a senior at South Panola (52 catches, 877 yards, 13 touchdowns) certainly impressive. But considering Nutt has often mentioned Brassell as a potential two-way player, I offer you Donte Moncrief, a decorated freshman in his own right.

Of all the new wideouts, perhaps none are more polished and ready to make an immediate impact than Moncrief. He's big (6-foot-3, 220) and growing. He's been one of the first players mentioned by coaches and players alike as one of the more impressive newcomers in summer workouts. He's got great hands and is above-average in his routes already. With time, he'll be better. Singleton, like Brassell, has all the potential in the world. But both Brassell and Singleton need time to sharpen their abilities as receivers. And if speaking honestly, I see Brassell more as a cornerback long term, where his athleticism is better suited. Moncrief could make an impact immediately. Don't be surprised if he does.

Ben's Pick to Click: Duh, Moncrief

At a Glance: Head Coach: Houston Nutt / 2010 Record: 4-8 / Offensive Formation: Pro Set / Defensive Formation: Multiple 4-3 / Starters Returning (O/D): 9/5 / Lettermen Returning: 47 / Lettermen Lost: 25

2010, By the Numbers:

Rushing Offense   18 207.58 3
Passing Offense   82 192.25 8
Total Offense   43 399.83 6
Scoring Offense 41 30.58 7
Rushing Defense   61 152.83 9
Total Defense 81 399.17 11
Scoring Defense   107 35.17 12
Pass Defense   103 246.33 11
Sacks   20 2.58 4
Tackles for Loss 20 6.83 6
Sacks Allowed  22 1.17 1

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