With an ability to play three-of-four wideout positions, as well as line up in the backfield as a running back, senior all-purpose gem Dexter McCluster is the proverbial sparkplug for No. 21 Ole Miss offensively.
Last season, McCluster led the team in rushing (655) and rushing touchdowns (6), while tying for the team lead in receptions (44).
Better yet, McCluster finished the year as one of only two players in the SEC to rank top-10 in rushing yards, receiving yards, receptions and all-purpose yards.
But three games into his senior season, the Largo, Fla. native has found touches tougher to come by. Though he totaled 115 all-purpose yards at Memphis and 48 yards receiving versus Southeastern Louisiana, McCluster was limited to one touch until the fourth quarter in Columbia.
Against South Carolina, McCluster finished with 15 carries for 85 yards. However, for the first time in five games, the 5-foot-8, 165-pounder failed to collect a reception.
"We don't ever want to go a half and not get him the ball," Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said. "That wasn't our intention. When we got behind the count a little bit, that made it very, very difficult."
For most of the night, McCluster was dealt double coverage in passing situations.
A South Carolina defense, who held the Rebels to a mere 71 yards in the first half, keyed in on McCluster, daring someone else to beat them in a tightly contested affair.
Not until the fourth quarter did McCluster break free. Lined up at his natural position of running back, the shifty speedster slashed the Gamecock defense, almost carrying his team to a come-from-behind win in hostile territory.
"Honestly, I was in the zone," McCluster said of his late-game Thursday heroics. "It's been a while since I've been in that zone, where I block everything out, see the hole and hit it. Me and my Dad were talking about it afterwards. I haven't been in that type of zone this year. But it came in the fourth quarter when I lined up at tailback.
"It's just so natural to me because I played it all my life. Me at my size, people were kind of skeptical about putting me there. But when you put me back there, things happen. That's what I want to do. That's the kind of player I want to be – someone who makes things happen."
In the early goings of 2009, the Ole Miss offense has failed to field any form of rhythm. When a team's most valuable offensive player is limited in opportunities, it's certainly understandable.
However, for a unit lacking any form of significant punch, the temptation to give McCluster more carries at Vanderbilt hasn't been lost on Nutt.
"He's so valuable. We want to get him the ball. He'll play all those positions again (Saturday)," he said. "We're not going to say how many or where, it just depends on the flow of the game. It also depends on how we're executing, making first downs and hopefully scoring. He's a vital part of it."
Lacking ideal size, McCluster feels his ability to hide behind a towering group of offensive linemen paid dividends in Thursday's loss.
"I would say I have an advantage because I hide behind those big offensive linemen," said McCluster. "I tell those guys all the time, if you don't block them, just get in the way of them because they won't see me. I don't care how small the hole is; I'm going to get through it and I'm going to hit it."
"The quicker backs, the guys that see it a little quicker – like Dexter – give us a big lift," Nutt added. "He gets in behind John Jerry and they find a crease and he hits it. As tough as South Carolina's front was, we needed a jumpstart, some quickness, and that's why we went that route."
With the offense sputtering in the early stages of a much-anticipated season, the involvement of McCluster has become critical.
As Dex goes, so goes the Ole Miss offense. However, McCluster believes the unit will soon find a chemistry sorely lacking thus far.
"We haven't been in a rhythm these past three games," McCluster said. "We know what we're capable of doing, but we haven't done that yet. But once we start clicking on all cylinders – the line is blocking everybody, the backs are blocking, the receivers are running good routes and Jevan starts getting it to us – we know we'll be a great offense.
"It's surprised us. The first game it took a while for us to get clicking, but we finally did at the end. It was hard to get clicking that second week. It's been kind of surprising. We haven't clicked yet, but I know when it comes, it's going to come at the right moment."
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