SEC Breakdown Day 8: Mississippi Rebels

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After a few weeks on vacation, I’m back to finish my “12 Teams in 12 Days” segment. And today we travel to Oxford, Mississippi to break down the Ole Miss Rebels.

The Rebels are an interesting storyline in the SEC.

After back-to-back Cotton Bowl wins, the Ole Miss football program fell on hard times in 2010. A small senior class, a lack of leadership and some off-the-field issues, among other things, resulted in a 4-8 campaign and a rude awakening for all involved.

Last year’s final game for the Ole Miss Rebels pretty much summed up their performance throughout the season. It wasn’t the fact that they were lacking in talent because that was not the case. It just seemed as though they were flat, and couldn’t make the plays when they needed to.

It clearly did not help things that transfer quarterback Jeremiah Masoli tried to do everything himself all the time. But even with Masoli trying to carry the Rebel squad on his shoulders throughout the season, the Rebs scored points.

The offseason was highly productive, physically and mentally, and the Rebs went into spring training with a different mindset, led by junior outside linebacker D.T. Shackelford.

But spring had its share of setbacks as well. Head Coach Houston Nutt promised a physical spring to bring back the toughness he felt his team lost in 2010. While completely necessary, the price paid was a rash of spring injuries to some key players, including Shackelford, who will most likely miss the 2011 season after tearing an ACL. Fortunately, D.T. is the only one of the wounded not expected back when fall camp rolls around in August, but some younger players who will be counted on missed valuable time and reps.

On offense, the coaches seem optimistic about the offensive line, led by senior left tackle Bradley Sowell and junior right tackle Bobby Massie. There’s a healthy mix of experience, leadership, depth and talent, albeit some of the players vying for quality time are on the young side. In spring, the run blocking was a plus while the pass protection improved.

Another “strength” area on offense is at running back. Look out for Brandon Bolden, who just missed 1,000 yards rushing as a junior; and senior power runner Enrique Davis, who had an impressive spring.

Although the staff is pleased with the quarterback candidates, nothing ironclad was settled in spring training among junior Randall Mackey, a dual-threat performer; transfer sophomore Barry Brunetti, cut from the same cloth as Mackey; and JUCO transfer Zack Stoudt, a taller, bigger pro style signal-caller. All three showed signs of being able to lead the team in spring, but none are finished products at this point in time.

On defense, where the Rebs struggled last season, the loss of Shackelford was a blow, but when all 11 starters are healthy, the Rebs should show improvement due to better chemistry, more athleticism, a more determined attitude and the return of sixth-year senior leader Kentrell Lockett at defensive end will anchor this seasons defensive line.

The linebackers, despite being young and most likely without Shackelford, will be faster, bigger and, from the looks of spring, hungrier. They were the most prolific playmakers in spring training.

The good news is the Rebels should be a “better” team than in 2010. The bad news is the schedule will be tougher. The Rebels open SEC play on September 17th in Nashville against the Vanderbilt Commodores. The remainder of Mississippi’s conference schedule includes Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, at Auburn, at Kentucky, LSU and at Mississippi State.

Overall the Rebs improve. But not that much. Ole Miss goes 5-7 in the regular season and misses a bowl game for the second year in a row.

Grade: C

 

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