Dexter McCluster -

Only two players - QB Jevan Snead and WR Dexter McCluster - were in white jerseys, indicating no contact, during last Saturday's Grove Bowl game. That tells the whole world their value to the Rebel football team. Read about it inside.

Do-everything Rebel playmaker Dexter McCluster understands the reasoning behind the Rebel coaches not wanting him hit except on Saturdays in the fall, and even then as little as possible.

He's too valuable to the team to risk an injury in "meaningless" situations.

But when his teammates are clad in Red & Blue, such as last Saturday's Grove Bowl ending spring training, and he's donning a white jersey, he admits he feels some frustration.

"Being protected is the coaches' decision, not mine, and I get it, but it's difficult at times," said McCluster. "I'll give you an example. In the Grove Bowl, I tried to dive in from the five when in a real game I would have lowered my shoulder and let my momentum carry me and the tackler in the end zone. My instincts were to do that, but it would not have been fair to my teammate who had instructions not to hit me.

"It goes against my nature to not be able to mix it up, but I roll with what the coaches say and I know and trust these coaches will do what is best for the team without fail."

Of course, who can question the Rebel coaches for their no-contact policy - in spring - with McCluster? Turning Dexter loose and taking the risk of getting him hurt, which could bleed into next season, would be foolhardy, but you also have to look at it from Dexter's perspective.

"I don't want my teammates to feel like there's any favoritism going on, but at the same time, I guess it's the ultimate compliment the coaches can pay me," he teetered back and forth on the subject. "If I had my preference, I would like the coaches to just throw me out there and let me play full speed with full contact, but I know I can help my team win when I'm healthy and it may not be worth the risk for practice situations."

Ole Miss Coach Houston Nutt admitted a couple of weeks ago he probably protected Dex too much at the start of the 2008 season. At the midway point of the Rebel rising, Nutt took the bit out of his coaches' and Dexter's mouths. The end result was McCluster actually lining up behind Snead at tailback and being the team's leading rusher thanks to that adjustment and him running the Wild Rebel formation as the shotgun quarterback.

"I don't think I realized how tough he is early last season," said Nutt. "Now, I don't look at him any differently than I do any other player, but that still doesn't mean I am going to risk him in spring training when he has nothing to prove.

"He's one of the premiere playmakers in the nation, in our opinion, there's nothing new he has to learn about the offense that requires contact and we wouldn't be the same team without him, so why gamble? If Dexter was still developing his skills or learning the offense, it might be a different story, but he doesn't fit in that category."

Nutt found out what Dexter's teammates already knew - McCluster is small at 170 pounds, but he is as hard as a pine knot and fearless.

"What some people don't realize is that Dexter sprung some big plays with his blocking last year. He is a physical player. He may not be big, but he's wound tight and he's strong," said Free Safety Kendrick Lewis. "He's so fast and quick that you hardly ever get a clean shot on him, but when you do it feels like you are hitting a bigger back or receiver. We all know Dexter plays no-fear football. That's part of who he is."

Deep down, McCluster knows he has nothing to prove in terms of his courage on the football field. He doesn't like to talk about it, but when backed into a corner, he will.

"My teammates know I'm tough and I know I'm tough. That's not in question," McCluster said.

For now, however, he'll have to wait until August for some limited contact and then September for the real deal.

He can live with that.

"Like I said, whatever the coaches tell me to do, I'm going to do it 100%, whether it's to hit someone or not do any hitting until the games," he added.

His "druthers" must, he realizes, be put aside.

McCluster was pleased with spring training from a team perspective.

"We needed some young guys to step up at several positions, expecially up front, and I think they all made big jumps," he assessed. "Our defense had a tremendous spring. I'm not going to lie - they frustrated me sometimes this spring. They can run, they hit hard, they know what they are doing and they have a lot of leadership on that side of the ball. I know I can trust our defense to do their jobs. I really think our defense next year will be better than last year.

"On offense, we've got work to do, but we are headed in the right direction and we have the personnel to get it done. Some of them need a little more experience, but we've got time for them to get that."

When the Rebs open the season next year in Memphis, Dexter McCluster will still be in a white jersey, but so will all his teammates.

When that time rolls around, he will most likely have a defender between him and paydirt. He may freeze him with a quick move or he may try to run over him.

Only the situation will choose which route he will take, but one thing is certain, all the options, unlike in spring, will be available to him.

But don't be surprised, however, if he chooses the contact method to look on the sidelines and see Nutt holding his breath.

His health is a major key to the whole season.

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