Spring Preview: Wide Receivers

In the weeks leading up to spring practice, The Ole Miss Spirit will be filing periodic reports previewing each position area of the 2009 Ole Miss football team. Thursday's edition covers the Rebel wide receivers. Read about it inside.

Overview – Entering 2008, many questioned how well the Rebel wide receivers would adjust to new quarterback Jevan Snead.

There were no doubts in terms of talent, considering Ole Miss returned its entire crop of wideouts. But the group had suffered through previous years of uncertainty with who might line up under center in any given game.

From Seth Adams to Brent Schaeffer, the wide receivers were never able to truly display their immense talents.

Enter the talented quarterback transfer from Texas.

Through the then-sophomore's emergence, the once revolving door of signal callers was halted. He was undeniably considered the starter, allowing the wideouts to find a groove seemingly lost in the early stages of their young careers.

Senior Shay Hodge largely benefited, as the Morton native totaled 44 catches for 725 yards to lead his team last season. His eight touchdowns were the most by any Rebel, while averaging 55.8 receiving yards per game on the year.

Proving to be one of the better pass catchers in the SEC, the 6-foot-1, 207 pounder enters the spring as the most polished wideout on Ole Miss' roster. While mastering route-running will be a focus, Hodge is a true possession receiver in every sense. He's sharp in his cuts, but also has an ability to stretch the field, as shown in Gainesville with an 80-yard reception in a win over Florida.

One area of needed improvement might be his release off the line of scrimmage. Hodge sometimes gets caught in traffic, throwing off timing between quarterback and receiver. But he catches anything that's thrown to him, often winning 50/50 balls in the air. There's no doubting that Hodge has All-Conference written all over him.

Departed senior Mike Wallace's straight-line speed is almost impossible to replace. But Dexter McCluster can certainly fill the void with his own form of quick burst.

The two are contrasting in styles, as Wallace was able to run by any defender, providing Ole Miss with its greatest deep threat. Dex is different, possessing uncanny ability in the open field. While he's not the biggest of men at 5-foot-8, 165 pounds, he's a load in space. With the ball in his hands, McCluster does damage – especially when matched against linebackers and safeties.

He's listed as the starter at flanker, but is sure to get some looks at running back as well. As mentioned previously, the coaches expect 15-20 touches a game for their super utility man.

A possible candidate to fill Wallace's shoes could be junior Lionel Breaux. While he doesn't have quite the speed of Big Strike, he's nothing to sneeze at in terms of breakaway ability. At 6-foot, 191 pounds, Breaux has the build of a physical receiver. He has good hands, but isn't polished in his routes.

But it's not a matter of if with Breaux, it's when. Once he puts it all together, he'll be dynamic. Hopefully that transformation starts this spring.

Junior Markeith Summers was the surprise of last season, despite the fact he was one of the more coveted receivers out of Mississippi in high school. He was tried at cornerback early in his career, but returned to his natural position last season and flourished.

Head coach Houston Nutt has talked of his maturation over the course of the year, as Summers made strides both on the field and in the weight room. He has good size at 6-foot-2, 197 pounds, but needs to be more consistent in pass catching. He's a physical blocker, often finding game time in running situations last season.

Similarly to Summers, Andrew Harris is another physical wideout who will undoubtedly factor into the mix in the WR rotation this spring. The sophomore shined during Cotton Bowl practices, making spectacular catch after spectacular catch – many times against first team competition.

His most needed area of improvement is in his routes. He's immensely talented, but being crisp in your cuts is vitally important. No player can survive simply on raw talent alone. If he's able to better his technique, watch out. Harris could be a star in the making.

A large question mark heading into last season, the TE position was mostly inconsistent. However, Gerald Harris flourished in the Cotton Bowl, grabbing two receptions for 29 yards and two touchdowns. That performance, parlayed with improved play towards the end of the season, left many to believe he's finally comfortable in the role and can be a more than capable receiver off the line of scrimmage.

While he was relegated to blocking many times in games, Harris has shown the ability to make catches and follow with added yards. He's every bit of 6-foot-5, 250 pounds and should be utilized much more in 2009.

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Returning Starters: SE Shay Hodge, FL/RB Dexter McCluster, TE Gerald Harris

Other Key Returnees: FL Lionel Breaux, SE Markeith Summers, SE Andrew Harris, WR Melvin Harris, WR Jacarious Lucas, TE E.J. Epperson, TE Reggie Hicks, TE Ferbia Allen

Key Signees: Pat Patterson, Ja-Mes Logan, Terrell Grant, RB/WR Korvic Neat

Key Losses: FL Mike Wallace, TE David Traxler

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Quotable – Senior Dexter McCluster

On S&C Coach Don Decker challenging him to gain weight:

"I've been challenged (to get to 180 pounds). I've never been that weight before, but I trust Coach Deck and the weight staff. They wouldn't ask me to do something that would hurt my performance. If that weight does hamper my speed any, it would be easy to trim down a little."

On being used at different positions:

"Wherever the coaches need me, I'm going to go out there and do it. I like getting the ball a lot, but it's all about whatever it takes to help the team the most. That's what I want to do."

On splitting time between WR and RB:

"I'm working out with the wideouts in the offseason. I feel pretty natural at running back and there's not a lot to learn, but at receiver you have to stay crisp on your routes so that benefits me for now."

On establishing himself as a leader:

"I'm a senior now and I want to develop into a leader like the seniors before me. I want guys to be able to look to me as an example of the way things are done. We have great chemistry on this team and are having so much fun now. We can't wait to go to workouts, to practice, to 5:30 a.m. workouts - it's all fun, the way it's supposed to be, and we want to keep that rolling."

On the competition at wide receiver:

"We've got a lot of young guys here and coming in who want to take my job and nothing is set in stone. You can lose your position in a blink of an eye if you let up. I want them to learn something from me and maybe I can learn something from them, but competition is what it's all about and I intend to stay sharp."

On what he expects offensively over his last year at Ole Miss:

"Being in this offense for a year should help us all. Coach (Houston) Nutt and Coach (Kent) Austin always put us in the right position to make plays and they are great play callers. It's exciting to be a part of that offense and that system."

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Final Analysis – With so many weapons to choose from, the wide receiver corps should once again be a strength for Nutt and staff in 2009.

Hodge leads the group, after topping the team in yardage and tying for first in catches last season. While quiet by nature, the senior is an established leader through his production, holding a trusting relationship with Snead unlike any other. He's the go-to-guy for Ole Miss in games and should emerge as one of the conference's better receivers by season's end.

Arguably the Rebels' most valuable player, McCluster is a terror for opposing defenses. He finished the year with 625 yards receiving on 44 catches, while also totaling 655 rushing on 109 attempts. Dexter carries various roles for Ole Miss, lining up both inside and out at wideout, quarterback in the Wild Rebel and running back in the Ole Miss backfield. He's sure to garner a multitude of preseason accolades, as possibly the best all-purpose threat in the SEC.

Breaux and Summers are guys to watch in April, with both showing glimpses of productivity last season. Both bring different skill sets to the fold – Breaux being a deep threat possibility with his speed and Summers with his unmatched physicality and strong frame. Each needs to improve in route-running and also in their releases. If they're able to do that, the loss of Wallace shouldn't be as impactful as initially thought.

The coaching staff has plenty to work with this spring, including at tight end, where the goal is to incorporate the tight end more in passing situations. Harris proved capable in the latter stages of the year, while possessing the physical makeup desired for SEC tight ends. The position is a compelling storyline to say the least, considering the coaches plan to expand the playbook come fall.


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