By the end of March we'll rekindle the flames of a Southern sports staple. Ole Miss will once again strap on pads to partake in the tenuous task of spring drills.
But unlike a year ago, when Ole Miss returned 16 of 22 starters, this season is filled with unknowns. It's rather fun for a writer, but the question marks and soon-to-be rampant depth chart changes are somewhat unnerving.
We've already said goodbye to, among others, Dexter McCluster, Shay Hodge, John Jerry, Marcus Tillman, Kendrick Lewis, Marshay Green and Jevan Snead.
Mindless note: I know, I know. How could I fail to list stalwart defensive end Greg Hardy? Well, let's just color it as discretional oversight. But hey, at least Greg always had something interesting to say.
Nevertheless, storylines abound.
At the forefront is an intriguing battle under center between sophomore Nathan Stanley and redshirt freshman Raymond Cotton. Both possess promising qualities, but having to replace experience is always a tricky number.
Jevan Snead, who surely didn't set the world on fire last season, is off to chase the dream of NFL millions. He takes 26 starts over his two-year stint in Oxford with him. He completed as many interceptions (20) as touchdowns (20) as a junior, and was in a constant struggle with inconsistency as the year wore on.
Snead opting to turn pro was surprising, to say the least.
So the development of a new quarterback begins in earnest. The process is set to take place under new leadership, too. Kent Austin, as most are aware, departed to become the 26th head coach at Cornell. Enter former Alabama offensive coordinator Dave Rader.
It's hard to say which player – Stanley or Cotton – has the leg up with practices approaching. Sure, Stanley is etched in with the first team as of today, but Cotton should make this competition a heated one.
If forced to choose sides, I'd probably cast my lot with Cotton. But this is only one man's opinion, of course. I just like the kid's makeup, honestly.
Another daunting task lies in replacing the production lost from running back/wide receiver/painter/carpenter/cook/babysitter/all-time favorite, Dexter McCluster.
Think about this: McCluster, all 5-foot-8, 172 pounds of him, became the first player in Southeastern Conference history to amass 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving in a single season.
Even more astonishing, most of the damage came in the second half of 2009-10. In the final seven games, McCluster juked and jived for 1,003 of his 1,167 total rushing yards.
Where will the magic come from?
Obviously no player on the Ole Miss roster is expected to fill the void entirely. But sticking with the group currently on campus (this would eliminate Randall Mackey, mind you), there are some capable candidates to help soften the blow.
For starters, returners Brandon Bolden and Rodney Scott are reliable rushers. Bolden, lest we forget, opened the year atop the Rebel running back stable. He finished second on the team in rushing with 663 yards and four touchdowns. Scott, in 11 games played, carried 35 times for 140 yards.
Jesse Grandy can be used in a variety of roles, from his primary position of wide receiver to some duties in the Wild Rebel – a formation McCluster manned admirably in head coach Houston Nutt's first two seasons.
Grandy made only four catches for 43 yards as a freshman, but he also did damage on the ground. He rushed for 117 yards with limited touches (17). And don't get me started on his kick-return ability. Suffice to say, the kid's a stud.
But I digress. Moving on.
Did I forget to mention Hodge, the first wide receiver in school history to surpass 1,000 yards receiving in a season, is gone as well?
The ever-reliable Morton native was easily the No. 1 target for Snead over a 9-4 season. Hodge caught 70 passes, 26 ahead of the next-closest receiver. He scored eight times, and averaged 87.3 yards per game.
Another mindless note: As previously mentioned, McCluster was Ole Miss' primary rushing option toward season's end. He didn't even record a catch some games. Yet, as the final stats show, he was still second in yards, catches and average yards per game as a wideout.
Markeith Summers, buckle your chin strap. Hodge left some mighty big shoes to fill. Ditto for Pat Patterson and Lionel Breaux.
For the sake of rambling (too little too late, huh?), I'll skip the offensive line and briefly write of the defense. I mean, we have to save something for Chuck to write about.
Outside of replacing three starters in the secondary and a retooled defensive front, the core of a stingy Ole Miss defense returns. The linebackers are loaded, though the unit will surely miss Patrick Trahan, and walking soundbite Kentrell Lockett is a blossoming star at DE. Not to mention Jerrell Powe, who is rapidly approaching Peria Jerry-esque dominance.
Spring practice is always a fun time of year, if nothing more than a divergence from those monotonous months without football. From the smell of freshly cut practice fields to the sounds of pads viciously popping, the environment is intoxicating.
And considering Ole Miss' recent success, Oxford walks a little taller these days. However, as exhausted in the 28 previous paragraphs, 2010 is the year of who knows what. But I'll be darned if it isn't good drama.
Let the debate begin.
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