Spring is in the air, and so is the smell of pigskin.
In Oxford, MS, Hugh Freeze's Ole Miss Rebels look to maintain the momentum stemming from a turnaround season and top-notch 2013 recruiting class. While reserve QBs Barry Brunetti and Maikhail Miller split snaps this spring with starter Bo Wallace recovering from shoulder surgery, there are three other key position battles shaping up for the Rebels.
Outside of the reserve quarterback role (worthy of it's own article), running back, offensive guard and defensive tackle are three important positions with spirited competition this spring.
Here's a preview of each top position battle this spring in Oxford.
While RB Randall Mackey has graduated, starting RB Jeff Scott will be back for his final season at Ole Miss.
Scott is a speedy, electric back, but a player that's been hampered by injury over his career. On the other hand, Mackey did a little bit of everything for the Rebels in Hugh Freeze's dynamic offensive system.
While a replacement or two must be found to fill the role Mackey played in Oxford, it's equally as important that Ole Miss build quality depth in the backfield. Scott combined for over 1,000 yards rushing and receiving last season, but durability is often a question for smaller backs in the SEC over the course of an entire season.
The senior gives his team the ability to score on any given down, but he can't do it all by himself in 2013.
For Scott to be as effective and efficient as he is capable of being, he needs a supporting cast in the backfield.
This spring, sophomores I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton return looking for more carries. Additionally, early enrollee Mark Dodson aims to show what he can do as a true freshman.
These will be the three men fighting to show they're worthy of quality minutes behind or in-tandem with Scott.
Entering spring practice, Mathers appears to be the leading candidate. While the smaller Walton figures to be featured more prominently on return teams in 2013, he's another back with lightning speed.
In terms of Dodson, his biggest challenge this spring will be learning the offense. Spring ball will provide him with the first chance to display his talents, and he'll begin his career as a Rebel with great expectations.
The hope in Oxford is that at least one of the three youngsters closes out spring looking solid.
Who will replace the lone departing offensive lineman, OG A.J. Hawkins?
That's one of the major questions for Ole Miss this spring, but it's even a little more complicated with OG Aaron Morris out recovering from recent shoulder surgery.
While Patrick Junen is the leader to replace Hawkins up front, Morris' absence leaves a void at the other guard spot this spring.
In week two of spring practice, 6'3'', 335-pound Justin Bell and 6'7'', 354-pound Jared Duke are sharing time with the first team in Morris' place. Ole Miss should safely be two-deep at center and tackle this fall, but the Rebels must build depth at guard between the spring and summer.
Assuming Junen ultimately fills Hawkins' role, players like Bell, Duke and even Corey Gaines will need to hone their skills ahead of fall to provide much-needed depth at guard.
If coaches aren't satisfied with the progress of these three players in early summer, then some position changes could take place.
While the Rebels will have some depth at defensive end this fall, especially after top recruit DE Robert Nkemdiche arrives this summer, interior line depth is an area of concern.
But DL Lavon Hooks is on the field for Ole Miss as an early enrollee this spring. One of the top junior college prospects in the nation, Hooks looks every bit the part of an SEC defensive lineman.
However, he's under a bit of a learning curve in the Rebel defense.
With Gross healing from minor surgery, Woodrow Hamilton has been impressive opposite Bennett at defensive tackle. He's taking full advantage of the opportunity at hand.
Reserve Carlton Martin is also looking to impress this spring and become a more integral part of the tackle rotation.
With true freshman Herbert Moore landing on campus in the summer, top reserves Hamilton and Martin need to step-up the remainder of spring ball to stay ahead of the curve.
Bennett and Hooks are favorites to start at tackle this season, but Hamilton is certainly making a strong push at the moment. Gross is expected to be even better than he was as a true freshman, but developing some quality reserve work is mission critical this spring.