Are We There Yet?

Sure the 2008 season just recently closed with a 47-34 trouncing of Texas Tech, but there's no better time than now to look ahead to 2009. Read about it inside.

What a year it was.

As we close the book on another Ole Miss football season, 2008 will go down as one of the most memorable in Rebel history. A team, down on their luck over the last three seasons, rose from the ashes of triviality and finished with a thrilling six-game winning streak.

Head coach Houston Nutt brought home the bacon, so to speak, preaching "one heartbeat" and following through on the multiple promises stated at his inauguration speech November 28th.

Let's be honest folks, the man saved Ole Miss football. He assembled a superior staff and built a team around an intoxicating aroma of enthusiasm, only to deliver a 9-4 season that could have easily included a few more wins.

Sure the losses were tough (the Rebels lost all four by a combined total of 19 points), but they are what made the wins that much more gratifying.

A captivating rollercoaster ride every step of the way, the story has now been written. It's time to look toward the sequel.

The 2009 journey will certainly be an interesting one. While the team loses key contributors on both sides of the ball, capable bodies await to replace them. The coaching staff did a tremendous job of building what depth they could throughout the thinner areas of the team, with skilled role players waiting in the wings to handle the starting load.

Gone are the likes of Peria Jerry, Michael Oher, Mike Wallace, Jason Cook, Jamarca Sanford, Darryl Harris and Ashlee Palmer. However, Jerrell Powe, Bradley Sowell, Markeith Summers, Andy Hartman, Johnny Brown, Reid Neely and Patrick Trahan have proven reliable at different junctures this season.

"We're losing some good players," Nutt said. "Michael Wallace, he got by a lot of defensive backs this year. You lose a Michael Oher that protects the left side. You lose a Peria Jerry. You can't draw those people up. They're special."

A defining characteristic of the 2008 squad was the leadership by the seniors, but filling that void might not be as difficult as first anticipated. Senior Mike Wallace believes the torch has already been passed to the underclassmen.

"Leadership was understood on this team. There was no need to explain," he said. "I really fell like we had one of the meanest swaggers in the nation, so that's not really a question to me. Guys like Kendrick, Marshay, Baby J (John Jerry), Shay Hodge and Dex are gonna keep that going. There's no doubt in my mind. They'll come in next season ranked in the top-10 and keep it rolling."

But obviously next year's successes will hinge on the play of rising superstar Jevan Snead.

The gunslinger finished 18 of 29 for 292 yards and three touchdowns in Friday's Cotton Bowl, only building on an impressive finish to a sophomore campaign that included nine games with multiple TD tosses and seven performances of 200-plus passing yards.

"Over the last six weeks, Jevan really came on," said Nutt. "This is really his first year to play and I think he's done a remarkable job. I'm so proud of him. We have a lot of formations and he had to be the traffic controller with getting people in and out. He's watching the clock. He's the manager.

"But if you look at the last seven weeks, this guy's been so accurate. Our receivers are so fast and he's been very, very good on the deep ball. The LSU game, Florida game, if you look at those big games, sometimes quarterbacks will shy away from a big game but the pressure doesn't bother him."

Despite the departure of Wallace, Jevan will still have most of his weapons returning including all-purpose aficionado Dexter McCluster, Mr. reliable Shay Hodge and a stable of talented running backs spearheaded by 2008 starter Cordera Eason.

"What coach said earlier about me, I can't do without my teammates. They make my job so much easier," Snead said. "I just feel fortunate to be on such a gifted team and to be able to play with these guys. They're a great group of guys. I'm going to miss the one's leaving."

But Dexter is the key. The junior will enter his final collegiate season with plenty of notoriety after being named the Cotton Bowl Offensive MVP following an all-purpose performance of 180 yards.

As Houston has stated, the offense runs through McCluster and next year will be no different. Look for the soon-to-be senior to receive an abundance of preseason awards, including a spot on the SEC all-conference team.

While small in stature at 5-foot-8, 165 pounds, the junior plays with a motor unmatched by his counterparts and provides a different dimension to the Rebel offense.

"It's been a lot of people looking down on me because of my size, saying I'm in the wrong sport," McCluster said. "But I go out there and play with my heart. I give 110 percent every play and try to do whatever I can for the team because I know they'll do the same thing for me.

"I want to go out there. I feel the same size as everybody else on the field."

The biggest question mark, however, is along the offensive line.

Offensive line coach Mike Markuson knows it's not going to be easy to replace All-American Left Tackle Michael Oher, the versatile Darryl Harris, and three-year starter Maurice Miller, who mans the right guard slot, but that's the task ahead.

Here's the breakdown, in a nutshell. Left Tackle Oher is graduating; Left Guard Darryl Harris is graduating but he has been splitting time with junior Reid Neely, junior Center Daverin Geralds returns; Right Guard Miller's eligibility is up; and junior Right Tackle John Jerry has said he is coming back despite the fact that he is exploring his NFL options.

Essentially, the Rebs will be faced with replacing Oher and Miller in the starting lineup because Neely will just slide right in for Harris at LG, most likely.

So, that leaves Markuson looking for two starters for 2009.

The most likely candidates are both rising sophomores and both have been redshirted a year. The heir apparent at LT is Bradley Sowell and the likely choice for right guard is Rishaw Johnson.

"Both those guys have gotten a lot of reps in the bowl practices and they have gotten better because of the extra time," said Markuson. "Both of them need some fine-tuning, but both have shown marked improvement.

"We expect to see some big things from those two guys."

While Ole Miss will return a bulk of their front four defensively, the Rebels are still awaiting word on junior Greg Hardy to whether he'll come back for his senior campaign or declare for the NFL draft.

Hardy has been mum on the situation thus far and, if he bolts, could drastically change the line's outlook for next season.

The front returns Kentrell Lockett, Marcus Tillman, Emmanuel Stephens, Ted Laurent, Lawon Scott and Jerrell Powe. But losing both Peria and Greg would be a difficult pill to swallow. I'm not saying the group would still not be one of the best in the conference, but the explosiveness that those two provide is hard to match.

As this season showed, however, there are various contributors who can step in when needed. Freshmen Justin Smith and Gerald Rivers caught the eye of defensive line coach Tracy Rocker and are ones to watch in the future.

"Inside, Justin Smith has done some good things and outside Gerald Rivers has shown up. I have been challenging them every day," Rocker said. "There is no doubt they will be great players in time, but they are a work in progress.

"I am also challenging the Lawon Scotts, Ted Laurents and Kentrell Locketts out there because I have to create some leaders now that Peria Jerry is leaving. There is no need to wait until spring to start helping the leadership develop for next year. You have to start talking about it now. We are going to lose some guys and we need some others to step up."

Other than the Hardy situation, the Rebels appear set defensively. While Jerry, Palmer, Sanford, Mouzon, Tony Fein and Chris Bowers are no longer a part of the equation, a majority of the country's 19th ranked defense is set.

With Cassius Vaughn, Marshay Green, Kendrick Lewis and Johnny Brown, the secondary shouldn't see a noticeable drop-off in production and could emerge as one of the team's stronger units.

While the group finished 81st in the country against the pass, they improved significantly over the season's latter stages, grabbing two interceptions (one for a touchdown) against Graham Harrell and the Texas Tech offense.

At linebacker, the Rebels feature three players who hold starting experience. Jonathan Cornell, Allen Walker and Patrick Trahan are slated to lead the charge, but Lamar Brumfield is the only backup in the two-deep with considerable experience.

Redshirt freshmen Jason Jones and Lekenwic Haynes impressed during bowl practices and could become factors in the spring.

"With a win against Texas Tech, we are off to a great start for the 2009 season," said defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix. "Hopefully we'll get some great recruits in here and coach them up to keep this ball rolling."

No unit was more reliable this year than the special teams, ranking no lower than sixth in all major specialty categories in the conference. Placekicker Joshua Shene and kickoff specialist Justin Sparks return, along with snapper Preston Powers. Punter Rob park is the lone senior of those specialists and the Rebs supposedly have a very good punter on the way.

Marshay is cemented in his punt return role, but Wallace forfeits his spot on kick returns upon graduation.

"I was most proud of them than anything on this team," Nutt said. "I did not tell you a year ago how scared I was of our special teams after watching them on film from 2007. It was horrible. The kickers weren't kicking, the protectors weren't protecting and the tackling was poor. The real estate was so uneven that every team was playing on a short field. That had to change. James Shibest deserves so much credit for that change."

Following a thrilling season capped by a Cotton Bowl victory, Ole Miss football appears ready to skyrocket. Defeating Texas Tech to end the season only increases enthusiasm for next year and rightfully so.

With a bevy of talent still in the mix, along with an excellent coaching staff in place, 2009 can't get here soon enough.

Bring on the Grove Bowl.

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