Lessons Learned

As the countdown to August begins, a few questions still remain after Ole Miss' 15 spring practices. Read about it inside.

With spring practice concluding after Saturday's Grove Bowl, the wait begins until the Rebels kickoff against Memphis at the Liberty Bowl September 6th.

But until then, we'll have many a month to determine the strengths and weaknesses of next year's squad.

How will Ole Miss weather some pretty stout expectations? Will the offensive line, that loses three starters from a year ago, be formidable come gametime? Which newcomer(s) make the jump to valuable contributor?

Since we only have the spring as a barometer, let's try and answer a few of those questions.

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* 1. Head coach Houston Nutt knows how to motivate his troops:

Many years have passed since Ole Miss was held in such high regard nationally. After suffering through four years of obscurity, including a 0-8 mark in SEC play in 2007, there's finally reason for optimism again in Oxford.

Last season, Nutt preached of "one heartbeat," with the players responding to the battle cry. After finishing 9-4, including a rousing 47-34 win in the Cotton Bowl, confidence was restored.

So were hopes for a big season come 2009.

As they proved this spring, the Rebels can weather the expectations of being a potential Top 10 team. Nutt has challenged his squad to never be satisfied, asking each "are you doing enough?" As the 5:30 a.m. workouts and offseason conditioning program showed, these boys are determined.

* 2. Bradley Sowell can be the answer at left tackle:

Sure, the arrival of Bobbie Massie is much anticipated and will play a role in who will protect QB Jevan Snead's blindside this fall, but Sowell showed enough toward the end of spring to cement his spot for the near future.

"Right now, he is the guy (at left tackle)," Nutt said after the Grove Bowl. "He really improved the second half of spring. He needs to get stronger, but he's so athletic. He can move and give you a chance on that edge."

When practices began, it was hard not to have some doubts. Few questioned the sophomore's athleticism, but Sowell wasn't displaying the desired physicality needed for an SEC lineman.

As it turned out, Sowell was demoted in the spring's second week, with senior Reid Neely sliding over to fill the void. But the 6-foot-7, 310 pounder rebounded, with Neely playing the part of teacher from his left guard slot.

If he can keep the momentum rolling, look for Sowell to emerge as a serviceable tackle next season.

* 3. Devin Thomas does have a role in the Rebel offense:

Sophomore Brandon Bolden is the clear-cut No. 1 at running back, but who backs him up has become a fierce battle.

The thought was to have senior Cordera Eason be that guy, but he and sophomore Enrique Davis struggled in spring training with pass blocking and hole recognition.

Enter Devin Thomas, who was hampered last season with an ailing foot problem.

Thomas had seven screws and a plate inserted into his ankle and was obviously slowed over his freshman season. Now feeling close to 100 percent, the sophomore impressed in April, showing good speed and strong burst in-and-out of cuts.

He impressed his head coach, with Nutt saying Thomas can play a role in next year's offensive plans if he continues to progress.

"I think he can," said Nutt. "He needs to come right back where he left off in spring in two-a-days. If he does, there will be a role for him."

* 4. Depth at cornerback isn't as dire as once thought:

Ole Miss features two solid starting corners in Marshay Green and Cassius Vaughn, but depth behind them was a concern this spring.

Jeremy McGee, a transfer from UCLA, played significant snaps last season as the team's nickel corner, but was inconsistent. While having his moments last season, sophomore Marcus Temple needed to refine his fundamentals.

After 15 practices, however, those concerns have been alleviated for the time being. McGee was impressive in drills, showing confidence in man coverage. Temple suffered a shoulder injury late, but came on toward the latter stages of practice.

A player who also improved was Julian Whitehead. He stepped in for Temple and proved capable when given an opportunity.

Nutt said the front seven should get some praise for the unit's development, but the corners did their parts as well.

"We have to give our front seven some of the credit for that because they have put on a very good pass rush this spring, but the DBs have gotten a lot better in their own right," Nutt said. "They still aren't the ideal size, but they aren't a weakness anymore."

* 5. Jevan Snead picked up where he left off:

Over the first seven games of 2008, Snead threw 10 touchdowns to 10 interceptions.

It was a Jekyll and Hyde type start, as he passed for 253 yards and four TDs against Wake Forrest, but followed two games later with only 184 yards and four interceptions versus Vanderbilt.

His play shifted in the second half, however, as Snead accounted for 1,298 passing yards, 16 touchdowns and only three interceptions in Ole Miss' six-game winning streak to finish the season.

It carried over into the spring, as the junior became an undeniable leader for the Rebels both on and off the field. He finished 11-15 with 254 yards and three touchdowns in the Grove Bowl, including TD strikes of 12, 20 and 70 yards.

"That's the biggest difference in Jevan since last year at this time," Nutt said of Snead's comfort level after a stellar sophomore season. "He has command of the huddle and the offense. He's confident and he leads the offense. He knows the playbook and has gotten better. He threw the ball very well (Saturday). Even though it was best against the rest, we got some rhythm going today and you could see some smoothness and chemistry."

* 6. There won't be any drop-off in leadership this season:

A key factor in last season's success was the leadership of seniors Peria Jerry, Jamarca Sanford, Michael Oher, Jason Cook and Mike Wallace.

Their contributions on the field were obvious, but each played a valuable role in the locker room which helped catapult Ole Miss in the fateful stretch run.

This senior class is committed to continuing the trend, as Green, John Jerry, Kendrick Lewis, Dexter McCluster, and Marcus Tillman have each let their voices be heard.

"Go ask Peria Jerry or Michael Oher or Jamarca Sanford or Jason Cook how long it took them to reach that level," said Nutt of managing expectations for next season. "It took a lot of work. We've been watching things closely as coaches, stressing everything they have to do to get back to that level. It's about the weight room and commitment and attacking things at practice and a sense of urgency and taking care of your business off the field.

"I have been very pleased with what has transpired since then. Our leadership with Marshay Green and Kendrick Lewis, John Jerry, Jevan Snead, Marcus Tillman and others made sure nobody takes a lazy step."

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The spring is over, but the march to fall has just begun. The players will focus on their studies until finals, but will come back for an offseason of conditioning and weight training.

But once the Rebels return for two-a-days and a new class of freshmen arrives, a much-anticipated season will finally be underway.

As will the expectations.


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