After back-to-back nine-win seasons, the third-year Ole Miss head coach enters a rebuilding season. The Rebels are replacing eight starters offensively and five defensively. Notable names, from do-it-all Dexter McCluster to defensive end and team captain Marcus Tillman, have since graduated.
Now begins the youth movement.
Of course, Ole Miss has plenty of veteran experience in spots.
The defensive line boasts all-league players in Jerrell Powe and Kentrell Lockett, who lead a formidable unit projected as one of the best in the Southeastern Conference.
Powe, a defensive tackle, earned preseason first team All-SEC accolades from the Birmingham News, while grabbing All-America honors from four other media outlets.
He has been named to watch lists for some of college football's top awards, including the Outland Trophy, Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Rotary Lombardi Award.
He was named to the All-SEC second team by the Associated Press last season, when he saw action in all 13 games with 10 starts at nose tackle. He tied for the team lead and tied for 8th in the SEC in tackles for loss with 12.
"I know we've got to prove ourselves, but the spring showed where we are," he said of the team's chances this season. "We know what the talent is around the SEC, but we're confident. We're motivated to get better. We'll carry that same attitude over into two-a-days and get better."
Powe is quickly approaching the dominant production of his former mentor, Peria Jerry, who became a first-round selection in the NFL Draft. Powe, along with Lockett and junior left tackle Bradley Sowell, was chosen to represent Ole Miss at SEC Media Days July 23.
The always outspoken Lockett has developed into one of the nation's more potent pass-rushers.
Lockett, this year's recipient of the Chucky Mullins Courage Award, started all 13 games at defensive end last season, and recorded a team-high 13 quarterback pressures. His greatest strength is his quickness at the line of scrimmage, where he's able to attack slower-footed offensive tackles and cause disruption in the backfield.
Lockett underwent two surgeries this offseason, a knee scope and a sports hernia repair. However, after extensive rehab his summer, he says he's nearing full health.
His presence is a welcomed boost for defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix, considering the team is relying on junior college transfer Wayne Dorsey and a group of inexperienced ends to replace departed veterans Tillman, Emmanuel Stephens and Greg Hardy.
"I'm feeling good," Lockett said. "I'm still trying to pick up some of the weight I lost after the surgery. That'll come with time. I'll just continue to work out and continue to rehab to get everything back right."
With a gaping hole opposite Lockett, Nutt and company hit the recruiting trail in search of an impact player with games played above the high school level.
Enter Dorsey, a five-star recruit, according to Scout.com.
Dorsey, the crown jewel of the 2010 recruiting class, comes by way of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. An early arrival who participated in spring drills, Dorsey stands an enormous 6-foot-6, 265 pounds. He accumulated 30 tackles and 5.0 quarterback sacks in just six games at defensive end last season.
He was immediately inserted into the starting lineup in April, but had an up-and-down spring. Absorbing Nix's elaborate defensive playbook was an obvious, and expected, adjustment, though he still flashed enough of his ability and unlimited potential.
Dorsey said he feels no pressure in his debut season, despite the fact he is clearly a key component for defensive success this fall.
"I wouldn't say pressure. Pressure is not a word I would use," he said. "I would say it would be the smartest thing for me to do – to acclimate myself to everything that's going on and get on the same thing with everybody else. I wouldn't say pressure. This is what I've been doing for a long time."
Senior Lawon Scott isn't spectacular, but has carved a niche as a reliable tackle, including 24 tackles as a junior.
Scott has a sneaky ability to rush the quarterback, but is most effective plugging the gaps and occupying space, allowing linebackers to roam free. He's slotted alongside Powe, with fellow seniors Ted Laurent and LaMark Armour rounding out a solid defensive tackle rotation.
Corey Gaines, a redshirt freshman, could also see time inside, with sophomores Gerald Rivers and Jason Jones providing depth at end. Gaines made strides in the spring, but consistency, as with Rivers, remains an issue.
Also in the mix at defensive end are true freshmen Cameron Whigham and Michael Thomas. Highly-touted signees Carlos Thompson, Delvin Jones and possibly Bryon Bennett, are sure to get looks as well.
Returning Starters: DE Kentrell Lockett, DT Jerrell Powe, DT Lawon Scott, DT Ted Laurent
Other Key Returnees: DT LaMark Armour, DE Gerald Rivers, DE Jason Jones, DT Justin Smith, DT Corey Gaines
Key Signees: DE Wayne Dorsey, DE Carlos Thompson, DE Cameron Whigham, DT Bryon Bennett, DT Carlton Martin, DE Michael Thomas, DE Delvin Jones
Key Losses: DE Marcus Tillman, DE Emmanuel Stephens, DE Greg Hardy
Senior Kentrell Lockett
On feeling any added pressure to lead:
"I don't feel any pressure (to lead). I'm not going to change or talk more. I'm still going to be me. I was the same guy three years ago. I really can't change. It's just me."
On the newcomers:
"There's no doubt they're important to this season and to the future of the football program. But not just that, they're going to learn how important the summer is and how important school is."
Junior Wayne Dorsey
On his adjustment to the Division-I level:
"The system, number one, and the defense; I hadn't been in a four-man front since prep school. Number two was the physical nature of the SEC, and also the effort that needs to be brought every day. Those were the big three things."
On his preparation for a starting role:
"You need to know formations and what to expect. The best thing for a defensive end to have is to be prepared for whatever he may see. Someone who's not prepared for what's coming for them is prepared for failure. That's probably the biggest thing, I'd say."
On his gradual development since arriving on campus:
"Every day is a learning experience. I take every day's lessons and build upon them. I've gotten more mental reps and some things I wasn't seeing in the beginning, I'm seeing now."
On contributing early at a need position:
"That's one of the reasons why I picked (Ole Miss), because I felt like I could come in and help out immediately. I knew I'd have to put on the weight, learn the system and step up my play to be the guy I wanted to be. But with what we have on the interior, and with Kentrell (Lockett) and some of the other ends outside, I felt like this was the best place for me."
Final Analysis: Far and away, the defensive line is the strength of a sure-to-be strong defensive unit.
Not only has Lockett become a dominant force off the edge, but he is also a stabilizing voice in a revamped Ole Miss locker room. Now up to 265, he's added weight every year since his arrival on campus, which has transformed his game from one-dimensional speed rusher.
Powe is arguably the heart-and-soul of the 2011 Rebels. No player has worked harder to improve, and that extra time is paying dividends his senior season, as he's regarded as one of the top defensive tackles in the country. His burst off the line of scrimmage is second to none – reminiscent of Jerry – and demands double or even triple teams.
Basically, barring injury, the only issue left unresolved is his draft selection.
Dorsey is the biggest storyline here. In Scott, Laurent and Armour, Ole Miss has quality depth at defensive tackle. Lockett and Powe are firmly entrenched in their respective positions, but Dorsey is the question mark.
He'll be asked to make a quick ascension to quality contributor, as Rivers needs more time in the team's strength and conditioning program and a talented crop of freshmen have yet to be battle-tested.