Ole Miss Football Preview

Scout.com's SEC publishers have produced 12 preview stories for the 2006 football campaign. The following is the Ole Miss offering. After a disappointing 3-8 campaign in 2005 under first-year Coach Ed Orgeron, the Ole Miss Rebels have their sites set on major improvement in 2006. For that to happen, some key elements have to fall in place. Read about the 2006 Rebels inside.

General Outlook –

As is the case with many first-year coaches taking over programs that had struggled the year before, the turnaround Ole Miss Coach Ed Orgeron was hoping for did not take place in his initial season.

The Rebels struggled to a 3-8 campaign, briefly licked their wounds and immediately began searching for the right formula.

Orgeron had some major staff changes, starting with dismissing Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone and replacing him with deposed Miami OC Dan Werner. He also replaced his offensive line coach with Miami veteran Art Kehoe, hired Millsaps Head Coach David Saunders to handle his linebackers, and promoted Hugh Freeze to tight ends coach when Matt Luke departed for Tennessee.

The end result was, as Orgeron said, "a staff that is now on the same page."

He also went about his business sending some shock waves, or at least gaining a lot of attention, when he recruited Scout.com's 15th-rated class in the country, featuring JUCO QB Brent Schaeffer and prep All-American DT Jerrell Powe, among other heavily desired players.

In spring, the Rebels showed some team chemistry that had been missing in 2005. They had adjusted to Orgeron's way of doing things and it showed on the field of play.

Even though the Rebels will be counting heavily on several newcomers – not the least of which is designated QB starter Schaeffer, there is optimism in the Ole Miss camp. With the staff more cohesive, the players seemingly more in tune to the task at hand and a great deal of new, but raw, talent on the way, improvement in the program is not only expected, it's anticipated.

Offense –

OC Dan Werner and his OL Coach Art Kehoe bring a "tough" mentality to the Rebel table. They believe, and lived this philosophy while in Miami, that the shortest route between two points is a hard-nosed and determined straight line.

The offensive line schemes have been simplified and are more aggressive. "We will attack and use double-teams and go right at people," explained Kehoe. "We won't wait for the defense to come to us. We will be the aggressor at the point of attack."

Werner is a firm believer in having a reliable, if not potent, running game, spreading the ball around in the passing game and using the tight end as much as a defense allows. Hit ‘em in the mouth and hit ‘em where they ain't might be the best description of his offense.

From a personnel standpoint, things get a little stickier.

Some pluses include transfer RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, an offensive line that has "bought in" to the new system, a mercurial quarterback in Schaeffer, a couple of talented tight ends and a bevy of athletic incoming wide receivers.

Ellis moved to Ole Miss after two very productive seasons at Indiana. After sitting out the 2005 season, he has basically taken over the TB slot in Werner's offense and has proven himself to be a strong inside runner who also has a burst of speed in the open field. His 1,800 yards rushing in two seasons in the rugged Big 10 were not a fluke.

Up front, an OL that never got untracked last year already seems to have more direction and purpose due to the influence of Kehoe, a player's coach. Sophomore Michael Oher moved from OG to the all-important left tackle slot and appears to have all-star qualities. LG Andrew Wicker and RT Darryl Harris are reliable veterans. The anchors for a representative OL are in place. It's simply a matter of more meshing in the summer months for them to be a competitive outfit.

There's little question Schaeffer has the physical tools to handle the quarterback slot and he's one of the most highly-anticipated arrivals on campus since Eli Manning, but it remains to be seen how much of the offense he can master during the summer months as the season rapidly approaches. Werner is convinced he can get Schaeffer "functional" and Brent can grow from there. That would be an ideal scenario for the Rebel offense because Schaeffer is the kind of gifted athlete who can make something out of nothing even when he doesn't have a total grasp of the situation. His continued development will certainly be a key to the Rebs' success.

Converted QB Robert Lane, senior Lawrence Lilly and junior Robert Hough give the tight end slot a playmaker look and that suits Werner fine – he loves for the TE to be involved in the passing game. He could well get his wish if spring was any indication of future tight end productivity.

The biggest question mark lies with the wide receivers. The Rebels lost their top four WRs from 2005 to graduation and are basically starting from scratch. 2005 TB Mico McSwain will be moved out wide, most likely, and adds instant credibility to the situation if he can learn the position quickly. Sophomore Burnell Wallace is a burner who has shown improvement in spring and the offseason. True frosh Marshay Green, who went through spring training, emerged as one of the most elusive players on the Rebel squad. RS freshman Michael Hicks, a big target, also closed spring with a flurry and is catching on to his new position after starting his career as a strong safety. The only returning veteran, junior Carlos Suggs, injured his collarbone recently and a return date for him is currently undetermined. The Rebels also boast of a very good group of freshmen receivers entering the picture. The immediate influx of talent will certainly not hurt in the WR equation. While this unit will be the most inexperienced on the team, it could also turn out to be one of the more athletic groups when all is said and done.

Defense –

Ole Miss lost their entire starting defensive line from 2005, and it was an underrated, fairly effective unit, but the Rebel coaches are not crying too much.

Sophomore DE Peria Jerry emerged in spring as a possible dominant force. JUCO signee Hayward Howard, who went through spring training, established himself quickly as a potential force. Veteran DTs Brandon Jenkins and Jeremy Garrett also picked up their games in spring. Sophomore Chris Bowers showed good pass-rushing skills from the rush end slot. Throw in the mix Powe and two or three other highly-regarded DL signees and Coach O, who also doubles as the defensive coordinator, will have the talent available to piece a solid attack together from the D-front.

Where the Rebs should shine – brightly – will be at the linebacker slots. All-American Patrick Willis returns to handle MLB and will stake a claim as the best in the college business. Willis is currently rehabbing a surgically repaired foot, but as of this writing he is on schedule to be fine when the season rolls around. A healthy Willis has the potential to dominate a game from the MLB slot and is a probable first-round NFL pick.

He will be flanked by junior Garry Pack, who started in 2005 and improved vastly throughout the season, and sophomore Quentin Taylor (most likely). Taylor needs more polishing, but his physical gifts are SEC quality.

In the secondary, the Rebs have three returning starters in CB Trumaine McBride, SS Jamarca Sanford and FS Charles Clark who should be leaders as well as excellent players due to their ability, experience and understanding of the scheme the second time around. B. Brown is also considered a starter and can play all four secondary positions effectively. Veteran Nate Banks, who has experience but has never started a game, will start at the other CB slot.

The prognosis for the Ole Miss defense is very good if they can develop the anticipated quality up front and Willis goes through a season with a clean bill of health. There is an air of expectation on the defensive side of the ball. They believe they will be good and that's a big chunk of the battle.

Special Teams –

The $64,000 question in special teams is whose foot will handle placements and will the chosen one improve from a sporadic year in 2005? Placekicking last year was a hold-your-breath proposition. Senior Will Moseley, one of the best kickoff men in the business, emerged from spring as the number one guy for FGs and PATs, but his spring was not what anyone would call dynamic. Consistency is the key and Moseley is striving to reach that. We'll see.

Sophomore Rob Park returns for his second year as the punter and showed signs of being more consistent and stronger in spring training. He is also the returning holder on placements and does an excellent job in that all-important task.

The Rebels lost three-year deep snapper Sydney McLaurin and have not solidified that duty as of the end of spring. That development will be important in August practice.

In the return game, Green showed the most promise due to his speed, quickness and cutting ability, but McSwain, Wallace and several others could enter that picture as time rolls along. The return game should be in good hands.

In coverage situations, Orgeron and Special Teams Coordinator Chris Rippon both believe in a philosophy of using the best available players, so that should not be an issue either.

Schedule –

It's never a bed of roses in the SEC. The Rebels will need to come out of the gates quickly and build some momentum early before getting into the meat of their conference schedule. And they'll have to do it with no breaks for 10 weeks – the only open date on the 12-game schedule is the November 11 weekend – after 10 games.

Ole Miss opens at home against always-troublesome Memphis then travels to Columbia, MO, to take on an improving Missouri outfit. They stay on the road the following week visiting Kentucky in Lexington and then host ACC foe Wake Forest on September 23.

All of the first four opponents offer difficult challenges to the Rebs, but things don't get any easier as Georgia rolls into Oxford on September 30 and Vandy visits the following week for Homecoming. The bright side? Four of the first six games are at home, which should provide some advantages.

The next three would be a meat grinder for any team – Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Arkansas in Fayetteville and Auburn at home – before Northwestern State – Orgeron's alma mater - comes to Oxford on November 4.

After taking a week's break, it's LSU in Baton Rouge and Mississippi State at home to round out the campaign.

It appears a fast start, fairly good health and being in good enough shape to get through 10 straight games with relatively fresh legs are the keys. Seven of the 12 being at home can't hurt.

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