The 2008 Ole Miss Rebels were good.
By the end of the season, they were very good, bordering on the overused word "great."
Great is what they are shooting for this season, that starts today with the first practice of the 2009 campaign.
What will it take for Coach Houston Nutt's squad to reach that elusive level they, and Ole Miss fans, are dreaming about and, yes, expecting?
There are keys. Some of them can be applied to any team in America, any year, but they are essential to get to the next plateau. All the stars have to align to move up a notch or two.
Here's one writer's opinion of the major ones.
Stay Healthy: That can be said anywhere, any place and any time about any team. Nobody, not even defending national champs Florida, can take too many injury hits and reach for the stars, but when you are trying to go from good to great, it's even more critical.
The Rebels have depth issues on the offensive line, at linebacker, at tight end and in the secondary. If the starters stay healthy, like they did for the most part last year, and give the backups time to develop, it will go a long toward the success of this journey.
Specifically, DE Greg Hardy has to get that surgically repaired foot "right." The Rebs were real good without him, for the most part, last year, but he's a guy who can give the team a big shove toward that greatness everyone aspires to. None of the starters on the OL can miss a beat, at least for a while until some of the backups develop. That is critical. Extremely.
There will be injuries. It's football. What is important is to who. Some injuries you can afford; others you can't, not when the goal is championships. The names of the ones you can't lose, and still drive for a title, are obvious.
The good news is that Nutt is the best these eyes have ever seen about instinctively knowing when to push on the accelerator and when to put on the brakes in working his team. His methods go a long way in helping keep players fresh and healthy throughout a long and grueling season. The proof in that statement was 2008 and how they were ready for the stretch run.
Another major contributor to that is the workouts conducted by S&C Coach Don Decker and his staff. They do a lot of preventative exercises in the offseason that help with avoiding injury.
Trust us on this - the staff knows how important it is for the Rebs to remain relatively healthy.
Look Beyond The Starters: We all know what Jevan Snead, Dexter McCluster, John Jerry, Shay Hodge, Kendrick Lewis, Marcus Tillman, Jonathan Cornell, et al, can do.
What yours truly will be looking for is how the not-so-obvious develop in August. CB Jeremy McGee, MLB Jason Jones, OL A.J. Hawkins, TE Ferbia Allen, S Fon Ingram, WR Markeith Summers, C Mark Jean-Louis, FB Derrick Davis, and several more, have to up their games to starter status for the Rebels to bring home a banner.
It's easy to look at the first 22 and believe great things are on the way, but it will take way more than those guys to collect all the marbles.
Our emphasis in covering the Rebels this August and fall will be placed on monitoring and reporting the improvement of the key backups. To win big, satisfaction with having second string status will not be good enough. The backups have to act, feel and play like starters when double-digit wins is the objective.
New Starters Must Carry The Torch: Yes, Michael Oher, Peria Jerry, Jamarca Sanford, Jason Cook, Mike Wallace, Mo Miller, Ashlee Palmer and some more are gone. There's no changing that or regretting it. You deal with it.
The new starters - Patrick Trahan, Andy Hartman, Bradley Sowell, Ted Laurent/Jerrell Powe, Rishaw Johnson, Johnny Brown, etc. - have to be as good, or better, than the ones they are replacing.
That's a tall order for some, but it's just the way it is, in a nutshell. It's common sense. If Jerry and Oher and company finished 9-4, as good as they were, how will Trahan, Sowell, Laurent and the rest do better? By being as good or better, if not individually, then at least collectively.
Second Year Improvement: For at least half of last year, the transition from one coaching staff to another played a part in the Rebs' 3-4 start.
There were confidence issues, learning the system issues and belief issues.
Those things should not be a factor this season. With the number of returning players the Rebels have, and having been in the offensive and defensive systems for a full season and a spring, the adjustment period should be over, the system should be second nature, the confidence should be there and the effort required has been given.
We should see, at the very minimum, a picking-up-where-they-left-off progression or, at best, vast improvement from the experience gained a year ago.
The expectation here is for across-the-board improvement from the returning players. A better rhythm to their play, if you will.
Again, that will be required if they are to earn a ring.
Of course, there are many more keys to a championship season, but, in this opinion, those are the biggies.
Can the Rebels go from (very) good to great?
Indeed they can, but it will take a lot of things going their way and very few bumps in the road.
Enjoy the ride.
Here we go!
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