Overview – With the Ole Miss passing attack receiving much acclaim last season, a strong year by the Rebel runners was almost lost in translation.
The group finished second in the SEC for rushing yards per game (186.5), implementing a running back by committee approach which proved effective for Houston Nutt and Co. over a 9-4 season.
Other than the loss of Rebel captain Jason Cook, all contributors from last year's backfield return. Cordera Eason, Brandon Bolden, Enrique Davis and even Dexter McCluster proved skilled at different points last season, with touches distributed somewhat evenly amongst the group.
Nutt has become known for his strong ground games. While at Arkansas, he produced top-5 rushing attacks every year. After such a strong campaign in 2008, Nutt will now focus on keeping the momentum rolling with spring practice only two days away.
While he's considered the returning starter at RB, Eason faces some pretty stiff competition this spring from a plethora of quality backs in the fold. At different points during the team's Cotton Bowl run, the senior flashed All-Conference ability, averaging 4.6 yards per carry on 660 rushing yards for the year.
By the same token, however, Eason could disappear during game action, relinquishing carries to other top performers Bolden and McCluster. In fact, by season's end, Dexter was seemingly the co-starter in the backfield. He finished the year with more rushing yards, netting 655 and six touchdowns.
Eason has a tough road ahead in holding onto his starting gig. He's a fierce competitor, who stayed patient over his first two years while waiting his turn as the starter, but must gain consistency in April. The senior will certainly factor into the team's plans next season, but needs to show a better capability to carry the load effectively every time he touches the ball.
As the surprise of last season, Bolden enters the spring with the most to gain, after gaining 542 yards on the ground and five touchdowns in 2008. He's a punishing runner who welcomes contact through his north/south running style. The true sophomore isn't the shiftiest of backs, but has displayed an ability to evade oncoming tacklers with finesse if need be.
The biggest knock on Bolden has been his pass blocking. Running backs are often the last line of defense in protecting the quarterback, as they're left on an island against free-releasing linebackers or ends. He's certainly physical enough to handle the burden, but hasn't totally grasped proper technique for the role. Admittedly, Bolden will focus on honing that craft this spring.
Before last season began, Davis arrived on campus with some pretty lofty expectations. Fair or not, as the No. 1 prep school player in the country, he was quickly deemed the heir apparent to the departed BenJarvus Green-Ellis by outsiders.
He started slowly in the season's early stages, but came into his own as the year progressed. Davis finished with 244 yards and three touchdowns, while averaging 3.8 yards per carry.
At 6-foot, 220 pounds, he carries a good frame, but will work on mastering the methodical Rebel playbook this spring.
He's undeniably talented, with strong speed from the tailback spot. If his progressions from last season continue, he could emerge as one of the better backs Ole Miss has to offer.
With the expansion of the team's playbook by OC Kent Austin, expect the Wild Rebel to make significant strides in the fall. McCluster is sure to man the formation, with Bolden and Davis both anticipated to garner larger roles.
While he struggled in passing, throwing two interceptions in five attempts last season, no player is more dangerous in the open field than McCluster. The plan is for Dex to have the ball in his hands 15-20 times a game – if not more. No package offers a better opportunity than the Wild Rebel.
Replacing the leadership of Jason Cook is almost impossible, but there shouldn't be a significant drop-off in production at fullback with the blue-collared Andy Hartman. He's a physical specimen who offers an unrelenting blocking style.
Derrick Davis will get looks in competition with Hartman this spring, as the junior is better served in passing situations. But both are serviceable, albeit with different styles.
Returning Starters: RB Cordera Eason, RB/WR Dexter McCluster
Other Key Returnees: RB Brandon Bolden, RB Enrique Davis, FB Andy Hartman, FB Derrick Davis, RB Devin Thomas
Key Signees: RB Rodney Scott, RB Darius Barksdale, RB/WR Korvic Neat, RB Gabriel Hunter, RB Stephen Houston
Key Losses: FB Jason Cook
Quotable – Sophomore Brandon Bolden
On his success over his freshman season:
"I think a lot of my success had to do with me getting here last summer a semester before Enrique and Devin did. I was a month ahead of them in my progress and wasn't learning from scratch by the time they arrived."
On the expected competition at tailback:
"It's hard to tell how the tailback competition is going to shake out - that's what spring training is for. We are all showing out in the offseason. Spring training will be no different. It's going to be real competitive. And to compound matters, we signed a couple of really good tailbacks this year. The position just got more crowded."
On his offseason goals:
"The coaches asked us to invest in the offseason and it would pay dividends next year and that is what I did. I've gotten my body a little more compact, so to speak. I feel more solid now. I have stayed the same with my body weight (218 pounds), but I'm different. I have also gotten faster laterally, which I needed to do. My cone drills times dropped a lot, and that measures side-to-side movement."
On what he plans to improve on in the spring:
"I have to improve in (pass protection). I felt I got better at it as the season progressed, but that's one area I wasn't satisfied with. It's hard to see over the offensive line and see where the pass rushers are coming from sometimes. You have to know a lot and make sure you are in sync with the OL."
On his role in the Wild Rebel:
"I think I'll still be in that package some. Dexter is the main guy, but I have a place in there too when they want someone with more power," he noted. "It's a fun formation. What's really cool is how it spread through college football and into the pros last year and our coaches are the ones who brought that formation to the public's eye."
On his comfort level in OC Kent Austin's offensive system:
"You have to be positive with your assignments on this level. If you make a mistake, you pay, so I can always improve. I'm hoping in spring we are going to add more passes to the tailbacks in our passing game. I don't want to be selfish, but I think our group of tailbacks could be good in the passing game."
On the team continuing its running back by committee approach in 2009 :
"I believe we have too much talent for one guy to just take over. I think we'll keep splitting time and wearing people down with one fresh back after another. I like rotating backs. It keeps all of us on our toes and keeps the competition going. We all know if we let up we are not going to play and that's not in our nature. It's a good situation for all of us. You get what you earn. You can't ask for more than that."
On external expectations for the Rebels next season:
"It's all just talk. The people who pick those things are not here with us every day. They are the same folks who didn't think we had a chance against Texas Tech, so how much credibility should we give that stuff? We are just out to prove something every day around here. I think we can be real special, but we have to prove it. You can't talk it, you have to go out there and do it."
Final Analysis – Returning most of its major offensive playmakers from last season, Ole Miss appears explosive on paper with spring approaching.
A stable of running backs should be the team's strength offensively, with the Rebels presenting a multi-talented group to build upon following a strong year in 2008. There is little separating one player from the other, as each brings a unique set of skills to the table for Nutt and staff.
First is starter Cordera Eason, who was rarely dropped for negative yardage last season. He's a finisher, who can churn out tough gains through his willingness to take on tacklers at the line of scrimmage and also escape trouble when presented.
While he heads Ole Miss' depth chart, he'll have to hold off other eager backs to keep his spot, which could prove difficult. In game action, Nutt always finds the hot hand, so Eason will have to prove he can handle the load each time out.
Bolden is the most physical of all Rebel rushers and should only get better this spring after adding valuable strength and core work this offseason. He's not a burner, but proved he can break big gains with his above-average speed. He'll need to focus on pass protection, but is strong with his footwork. He could push Eason the most this spring, as each runner will be vying for more carries in the fall.
Davis is the most intriguing player to watch, considering the staunch expectations he garnered as a freshman last season. He's shown glimpses of what he can become, but struggled mightily with inconsistency throughout his true frosh campaign.
His talent is apparent and should become a heavy contributor in time. Whether that time is now or in the future remains to be seen.
No one player can replace the leadership of Cook, but Hartman is certainly able to continue his solid production at the fullback spot. When Cook went down with injury before the Cotton Bowl, Hartman stepped in, with the offense not missing a beat.
He's a no-nonsense guy, who loves to make contact with his burly frame and strong willingness to get his hands dirty. As the lead-blocker to such a strong group of backs, he'll need a good spring to carry over into the fall.
The biggest storyline this spring will be which running back establishes himself as the leader of the pack. Each can handle the load, including McCluster, who will again be used in a hybrid role similar to that of last season.
Finding a steady mix is the key. Nutt has never been reliant upon one back, as his days in Arkansas proved with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. But each player will be given a certain role, with one needing to emerge as the guy to get the ball rolling once game time arrives.
Spring Preview: Running Backs
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