With the loss of 27 seniors, many of whom were heavy contributors in back-to-back nine-win seasons, Ole Miss headed into spring practice with numerous holes to fill on both sides of the ball.
Outside of the obvious production lost in Dexter McCluster and Shay Hodge, the offensive line faces uncertainty with three possible departures, along with the team's best blocking tight end in Gerald Harris.
Defensively, ends Greg Hardy, Marcus Tillman and Emmanuel Stephens are gone. Add in linebacker Patrick Trahan, free safety Kendrick Lewis and cornerbacks Marshay Green and Cassius Vaughn.
Suffice to say, this offseason has no shortage of storylines and position battles.
"You're going to be younger in a very difficult league," Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said in his postseason press conference Monday. "It'll be a challenge. We're going to be rebuilding in a lot of areas, but I expect us to keep taking off."
Make no mistake, despite a trying junior season, Jevan Snead was clearly wanted back. Nutt has said as much, as has offensive coordinator Kent Austin. It's hard to replace experience. And in 26 starts over a two-year career, Snead had totaled 18 wins to eight losses.
"Absolutely," Austin said emphatically when asked if he'd like for Snead to stick around another year before the Rebels' 21-7 win over No. 21 Oklahoma State in the 74th annual AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic.
"I'm selfish in that regard. I want as many good players at that position as I can have. And I think it would benefit him in a lot of areas. It would benefit him personally too. Off the field, I think there are benefits for him and just growing as a person. It would really help him."
Now, full focus turns to underclassmen Nathan Stanley and Raymond Cotton.
Stanley, long thought of as the heir apparent to Snead, appeared in five games as a backup this season. He completed 11-of-23 passes for 163 yards, one interception and one touchdown. Cotton, on the other hand, was redshirted in his true freshman season.
In his most extensive career action to date, Stanley replaced Snead in the second quarter of Saturday's Cotton Bowl after Snead was sidelined following injury. He also opened the third quarter for Ole Miss, though he finished only 2-of-7 for three yards and an interception.
"I was proud of him except for the pick he threw," said Nutt of Stanley Monday. "I thought he was smooth and relaxed. He made a first down on a scramble. He should have made the same decision on the pick - to run - but again for the first time in a big game, I was pretty proud."
Cotton, somewhat of an unknown commodity, carries high upside with a 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame.
A dual-threat quarterback with good mobility and an even bigger arm, he was a SuperPrep All-American selection out of high school. After a stellar senior season at Meade Senior High School in Fort Meade, Md., the former four-star prospect held offers from Ole Miss, Arkansas Auburn, Kansas State and Southern Mississippi.
"Nathan (Stanley) understands the offense," said Austin before the Cotton Bowl. "He's had two years now of being in it, terminology wise, what his reads are, where to put his eyes, his vision, understanding defenses, all of our adjustments. He's at a different level than Raymond right now, mentally.
"That being said, I think both guys are pretty talented physically. They're both big, they're strong, and they can throw the ball. They've got great arms, they're accurate, and I think they're both gamers. That's what I liked about them when we recruited them. Both of those guys will rise to the occasion when their number is called. I think they'll play better when the lights are on than in practice."
Snead certainly endured his fair share of criticism this season. He threw 20 touchdowns to 20 interceptions, and battled a season-long fight with inconsistency.
Superfluous scrutiny comes with playing football's most recognizable position. However, it could be argued that Snead received far more than warranted for a player in his second season.
Snead also wore his emotions on his sleeve, and the mistakes made this season were apparent toward year's end. But it would be irresponsible to say his struggles played a part in today's decision.
Regardless, he departs as the most successful quarterback since Eli Manning, and proved to be a stabilizing figure while under center.
Sure, his decision to declare early is a risky one, but there were no guarantees Snead would remain the team's quarterback if he endured the same trials next season.
"Jevan will take the first snap in spring, but he will know he's got competition," Nutt also said Monday. "Nathan Stanley and Raymond Cotton are coming. He'll have to be much better than he was this year and I think he understands that. The best guy will play."
Would that guy have been Snead? With Thursday's announcement, it's really a moot point.
Now, his successor will have the undivided attention of the coaching staff, and even more, of an unsettled fan base.
The Next Chapter
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