Out with a Bang

Every season, the final home football game of each Ole Miss calendar year comes and goes.

On "Senior Day" that season's graduating class is honored at mid-field, as players and their families stand with framed jersey's to an applauding collection of Rebel faithful inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

In some past seasons, the ceremony has been a bit of a forgettable affair. Amidst four-consecutive losing campaigns, including a winless SEC season just two years ago, the underlying meaning of the event fell on deaf ears.

That is, until 2009.

"They've been really something," Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said of the departing seniors. "I've been very proud of them. Two weeks ago probably even you guys didn't think we'd win another game. But they did. They believed. That's what they're about. That's that ownership. That's what you rely on."

When Ole Miss (7-3 overall, 3-3 SEC) welcomes No. 10 LSU (8-2, 4-2) Saturday at 2:30 p.m. on CBS, the highly-praised class of 2006 will be taking the field for their last time in Oxford. And in four lightning-quick years, they've been through it all.

From the doldrums of 2006 and 2007, to the euphoric peak of a 9-4 season and Cotton Bowl win last season, these seniors are a unique bunch. They helped lead Ole Miss to its highest ranking in almost 40 years and will again be playing for a January bowl berth after crucial wins over Arkansas and Tennessee.

"This is a tight group," free safety Kendrick Lewis said. "We've been through all the ups and the downs. This is the class I came in with in 2006 and we've stuck together.

"It hasn't really hit me yet. Until I experience walking in the Grove, seeing all our fans and playing in our stadium one last time, that's when the emotional part of it will come out. This is a real exciting game knowing it will be my last game at Ole Miss."

Their contributions have been invaluable. When glancing across the Rebels' depth chart, seniors account for 12 starting spots, seven of which offensively.

There's mister-do-it-all Dexter McCluster, who holds school records in all-purpose (324) and rushing yards (282). His four touchdowns in a 42-17 win over the Vols tied four others for the second-most in Ole Miss history, while he became the first Rebel in the modern era (records dating back to 1965) to top the 100-yard mark in both rushing and receiving.

"Those first couple of years was pretty tough," McCluster said. "Coming in, we had a lot of freshmen that started. We were kind of thrown out to the wolves. But we all pulled through it together. Now as seniors, I think we've had a big role on this team. There's a lot of leadership. It's very special for us. We want to walk into the Vaught one more time and get a win for Ole Miss."

McCluster, who is averaging 197.0 rushing yards and 262.3 all-purpose yards over the last three SEC games, has been a staple for Ole Miss since his record-breaking debut against Memphis in 2006.

In his first career start as a Rebel, McCluster racked up 268 all-purpose yards, which still ranks fourth in school history. Fittingly, he has risen to No. 2 on the Ole Miss career all-purpose yardage list with 3,549, behind only Deuce McAllister's 4,889.

"For me, it kind of feels unreal that this is the last time we'll be playing in this stadium," he said. "But we all want to go out with a bang and do our best. We want to pull this win out for the seniors and the team."

But the records don't stop there.

Even as converted wide receivers, Lewis and cornerback Marshay Green have blossomed into the proverbial faces for Ole Miss defensively. In fact, for the second straight year, Lewis is leading the team in tackles.

"I've had a career of life-long lessons," said Lewis. "There've been some hard times with the slumps we've been in. But with us staying together and depending on each other, I'm proud with the success we've had.

"It's going to be crazy. I was a freshman four years ago, and now it's my last game here," Green added. "I'm going to try and soak in all in and come out with a victory."

Wideout Shay Hodge ranks second all-time at Ole Miss in receiving yards (2,321) and receptions (153). He's within four touchdowns of Chris Collins' school record of 24, and his four 100-yard receiving games is tied for third in Rebel history.

"It will be a tough day for all of the seniors," Hodge said. "We've experienced a little bit of everything - highs and lows, coaching changes, good times and bad, but we're proud of what we have been able to accomplish. We've been able to turn the program around in the right direction."

The list goes on and on. From John Jerry, to Marcus Tillman, Patrick Trahan, Josh Shene and Cassius Vaughn, each has played a significant role in the Rebels' accomplshments in four memorable years.

While many classes have graced the gates of Ole Miss, few have seen such days as the one departing Saturday. So bring on the pre-game ceremonies. While the events are sure to be all-too-familiar, the significance won't be lost this time around.

Because, as we all know, one never graduates from Ole Miss.

"I know it's going to be emotional," McCluster said of his final home game. "It seems I was just here yesterday. My time in Oxford has flown by. I suffered some injuries and it was kind of rough early in my career, but I've been able to do some great things and help this university.

"I regret nothing that I've done since I've been here. I'm glad I made this choice and would do it all over again if I could. But I will definitely be back a lot once I graduate."

And the Rebel family will be happy to have you.

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