March 27, 2010

Rebels have cause for concern this spring

Last season, many experts felt that Ole Miss was a legit contender to win the SEC West.

It didn't happen. In fact, the season was a disappointment in the eyes of many despite a 9-4 finish that was capped by a second consecutive Cotton Bowl victory.

The Rebels finished 4-4 in the SEC West, with highlights being back-to-back victories over Tennessee and LSU in November. But Mississippi State drubbed Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, 41-27.

Now, Ole Miss faces what looks like a rebuilding year. Who will take over for speedy running back Dexter McCluster and receiver Shay Hodge? McCluster led the team with 1,169 rushing yards and ranked second in catches with 44, while Hodge paced the club with 70 receptions for 1,135 yards. And perhaps most pressing: Who will take snaps with quarterback Jevan Snead off to the NFL a year early?

Here's a look at the Rebels as they enter spring drills.

OLE MISS AT-A-GLANCE
Kentrell Lockett will need to be
a defensive force for Ole Miss.
THE BASICS
Coach: Houston Nutt
Last season: 9-4 overall, 4-4 in the SEC. Beat Oklahoma State 21-7 in the Cotton Bowl.
Spring dates: March 27-April 17.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum of six starts)
Offense (3): TE Ferbia Allen, RB Brandon Bolden, T Bradley Sowell.
Defense (6): SS Johnny Brown, MLB Jonathan Cornell, E Kentrell Lockett, NT Jerrell Powe, T Lawon Scott, SLB Allen Walker.
Special teams (1): P Tyler Campbell.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

The front seven on defense has potential. The line returns three starters, headed by Powe. Cornell and Walker lead a group of linebackers that should be solid. Despite a lack of returning starters, there remains a decent framework to construct a new line.

HELP IS NEEDED

Who will be the quarterback? Redshirt freshman Raymond Cotton and sophomore Nathan Stanley will battle to replace Snead, who endured a disappointing junior season that saw him throw 20 touchdowns and 20 picks. Ole Miss lost two good defensive ends in Greg Hardy and Marcus Tillman. It's vital that Powe and Lockett play major roles in keeping the d-line strong. It's hoped that senior Jeremy McGee and junior Marcus Temple take over the cornerback spots with Marshay Green and Cassius Vaughn gone.

THREE GUYS TO WATCH

RB Brandon Bolden: He started eight games and ranked second on the team in rushing last fall as a sophomore (614 yards). The staff is counting on Bolden, a 220-pounder, emerging as a physical running back for an attack that may have to rely on the run as a new quarterback is developed.

LB Jonathan Cornell: Cornell, a senior, has started 24 of the past 26 games at inside linebacker. He ranked third on the team in tackles in 2009 and sixth in 2008. Coaches need Cornell to ramp up his production and be a valuable leader.

NT Jerrell Powe: His success story still is in the making. He was one of the nation's top recruits during the 2004 prep season. He signed with Ole Miss in 2005 but failed to qualify; after also missing 2006 and '07, Powe finally got on the field in 2008 and thrived last season. He looks to cap his career with a bang.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

WR Markeith Summers: It's time for Summers to emerge and have an outstanding season as a senior. Summers, who caught just 17 passes in 2009, will be pushed by some talented young prospects. He needs to show he has gained confidence in his skills and be a steady pair of hands for the new quarterback.

THE BUZZ

If the Rebels want to repeat the success they enjoyed the past two seasons - 9-4 records each season - several big questions must be answered, with most coming on offense. The top issue is finding a quarterback. But keep your eyes on how well the offensive line develops. And it's also worth noting that the staff was altered. Offensive coordinator Kent Austin left to become coach at Cornell. Nutt will have co-coordinators, promoting offensive line coach Mike Markuson and hiring former Alabama offensive coordinator Dave Rader. Rader was coach at Tulsa from 1988-1999 but had been out of football the past three seasons. This looks like a challenging spring in Oxford.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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