Fall Focus: Running Backs

In the weeks leading up to fall practices, The Ole Miss Spirit will be filing frequent reports previewing each position area of the 2010 Ole Miss football team. Tuesday's edition covers the Rebel running backs. Read about it inside.

Overview – After the only official visit of his re-recruitment, former Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli will arrive in Oxford as a member of the Ole Miss football team later this week.

Head coach Houston Nutt filled a glaring hole in his new-look roster with the addition of Masoli. Current starter Nathan Stanley and junior college transfer Randall Mackey account for Ole Miss' only scholarship quarterbacks.

However, despite local and national attention centered on the much-maligned walk-on, the Ole Miss offense is still in transition. Following the loss of three starters, the offensive line is a question mark. The wide receivers, though experienced, lack career production from seniors Markeith Summers and Lionel Breaux.

A bright spot, it seems, comes in the Rebels' stable of running backs. Yes, replacing Dexter McCluster, who became the first player in Southeastern Conference history to record over 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving in a single season, is next to impossible. But a trio of capable backs return, led by rising junior Brandon Bolden.

After an admirable freshman season, one where Bolden endeared himself to the Ole Miss fanbase with his bruising running style, the Baton Rouge, La. native had somewhat of a sophomore slump. He opened the year atop the depth chart at running back, but struggled early.

Brandon Bolden>

He gave way to McCluster as the team's primary rushing option, before coming on strong as a complementary back in the season's second half.

All in all, he was Ole Miss' second-leading rusher, tallying 129 carries for 614 yards and four touchdowns. His greatest contributions came in a sporadic passing game, where Bolden became a viable receiving option with 20 receptions and 209 yards – good for third on the team.

Noticeably slimmer (in the 210-213 pound range) and with added speed, Bolden was impressive during spring drills in April. He was far better than a safety net for two developing quarterbacks, as his added burst and knack for big plays triggered the offense against one of the SEC's better defenses.

"The weight loss has made a difference," he said. "I can tell it in my speed, my knees, my flexibility, my hamstrings. It doesn't sound like much - five or six pounds - but it's a big difference to me in the way I feel.

"As for the speed part, you can always get faster. I'm fast now, but I want faster. It's always my goal and never changes."

Bolden is joined by a motivated Enrique Davis, who arrived at Ole Miss with heightened expectations he has, in all honesty, yet to live up to.

In his two years on campus, Davis, rated a five-star recruit while at Hargrave Military Acadmey, has totaled just 354 yards on 96 carries. More disappointing, the 6-foot, 220-pound junior has accounted for a trivial five touchdowns.

However, Davis came on strong towards the end of spring. So much so, in fact, it appears he could very well be given a legitimate shot at first-team duties this fall. In the annual Grove Bowl game, Davis carried six times for 54 yards in the glorified scrimmage, with one touchdown.

Enrique Davis>

His biggest improvement, at least to the casual observer, appears to be his decisiveness. Unlike his two previous seasons, Davis has become a more aware runner – attacking the line of scrimmage when given the opportunity for carries.

"The coaches told me to be myself, be more of a downhill runner, so that's what I made up my mind to do," Davis said. "The light has come on for me some. I had to learn when to do different things."

Not to be forgotten is sophomore Rodney Scott. The 5-foot-8 bowling ball saw action in 11 games last season, with his most extensive action coming against UAB in October, where he rushed for a career-high 57 yards on nine carries and his only two touchdowns of the season.

Scott's talent is undeniable, as showcased by a stellar spring. Still, similar to Bolden and Davis, he lacks allusiveness. With the emergence of the two veterans, his role in the backfield is somewhat of a mystery. There's only so many carries, and it seems unlikely he'll uproot either of the aforementioned pair.

Developing a niche in his second year, similar to Bolden in Ole Miss' return to the Cotton Bowl last season, could go a long way in determining his playing time.

"Rodney is a kid who hasn't been here a full year yet, but is developing well," running backs coach Derrick Nix said. "He's probably our toughest runner, a tackle-breaker. He just needs to keep improving his hands and getting the protection part of his job down. He's going to be important to us next year."

Two wildcards come in the forms of junior Derrick Herman and redshirt freshman Korvic Neat, respectively.

What the trio of Bolden, Davis and Scott lack in speed is more than made up for in Herman, a converted defensive back, who can get from point A to point B as quickly as anyone. A natural runner, Herman showed good signs in the spring, as Ole Miss is in search of a McCluster prototype to balance its stable.

Neat has displayed incredible quickness often since arriving in the signing class of 2009, but his size remains an issue. He weighs in at a generous 5-foot-8, 165 pounds and, though an obvious observation, needs more time in the strength and conditioning program. Regardless, he may be called upon out of necessity.

Lastly, E.J. Epperson, a critical replacement for departed fullback Andy Hartmann, moves to the forefront in his sophomore season.

E.J. Epperson>

The 6-foot-3, 255-pounder fits the mold of his predecessors, though he's learning on the job as a former tight end.

His needed emergence isn't as great a worry as once thought, chiefly due to his solid, if unspectacular, fill-in job for Hartmann in the Cotton Bowl, when Hartmann was forced to the sidelines due to injury.

"My goal in spring was to get, and to stay, consistent. I needed to show the coaches that I am physical enough and would give it up for my teammates while doing my job effectively," he said.

"By the end of spring, I was happy. Coach Nix pushed me hard enough to keep going and I progressed."

Returning Starters: Brandon Bolden

Other Key Returnees: Enrique Davis, Rodney Scott, Devin Thomas, Derrick Herman, Korvic Neat

Key Signees: Martez Eastland, Nick Parker, Jeff Scott

Key Losses: Dexter McCluster, Andy Hartmann


Running Backs Coach Derrick Nix

On his running backs:

"We have guys with power, we have guys with speed, we have guys who are better catching the ball out of the backfield and guys who are better blocking. We are going to be right there next year, but it's critical we keep working through the offseason and summer."

On the presumed starter, Brandon Bolden:

"Brandon is my jack of all trades. He will make our position go. For us to have a big year next year, he has to have a big year."

Junior Brandon Bolden

On the offensive performance in the spring:

"Once the offensive line got some chemistry going, it was pretty cool. Every one of us started making plays."

On the collection of running backs:

"We've got six guys and every one of us can do something. We've all got a role. We all pull for each other. We all have fun when we are out there or pulling for our other backs. A lot of people are talking about replacing Dexter (McCluster). We know it's going to be tough, but when you combine all the skills of all of us, and the coaches use us to fit our skills, we feel we can take up the slack. We feel strongly about that and feel we will prove it."

On his improvement:

"I've tried to hone all my skills because with the competition we have at running back, you can't just be a runner. You have to be able to do it all to get your number called consistently," he added. "I feel great. I am faster and I feel my balance and quickness are better."

Final Analysis: Of any position, at least offensively, little concern surrounds the running backs.

The loss of McCluster, selected by the Kansas City Chiefs in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft, is an irreplaceable void. His skill-set was unique, in that he fought for every yard, while maintaining the unmatched speed showcased each and every Saturday.

Rodney Scott>

The challenge isn't in finding his replacement. Ole Miss has the luxury of the ever-cliché "running back by committee" approach.

Bolden, Davis, Scott, Thomas, Herman and Neat are all capable of handling snaps, though the time-share will be broken up between those who emerge in August camp.

What will be interesting to see is whether Herman or Neat can at all replicate McCluster's quick-shifting, deceptively elusive speed. For all the bruisers' strengths, McCluster's elusiveness isn't one of them. Finding that lighting is the storyline as Sept. 4, Ole Miss' season opener against Jacksonville State, rapidly approaches.

OM Spirit Top Stories