Team to Watch Opens Spring Ball—No, Not Alabama, but Ole Miss

Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterMarch 18, 2013

There's no shortage of storylines this spring in the SEC. Will LSU rebuild or reload? Can the new coaches get things turned around at Auburn, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky? Is Georgia capable of taking the next step?

Under normal circumstances you'd think that the biggest question looming over the SEC this spring would be whether or not Alabama can fill in the holes on its roster enough to continue its dynasty.

Let's pump the brakes on that.

The Crimson Tide hit the practice field for the first time this spring on Saturday, but it's a team one state to the West that is the most intriguing story of the spring.

The Ole Miss Rebels.

Raise your hand if you thought that was even remotely possible last offseason (put your hand down, no you didn't).

A surprising 7-6 record in 2012, 18 returning starters and a top-10 recruiting class that features two of the nation's top four prospects have elevated Ole Miss from SEC anonymity to a full-fledged threat in just one season under head coach Hugh Freeze.

While the target on its back is not nearly as big as the one following the Crimson Tide, there's a heightened expectation level in Oxford these days, which will make this spring practice incredibly intriguing. 

Quarterback Bo Wallace will miss spring practice after recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, which means that the keys to the offense will be in senior Barry Brunetti's hands.

It's unlikely that Brunetti will overtake Wallace for the starting job, but getting first-team reps this spring will help him improve as a quarterback—which means he will become an even bigger weapon if and when he moves into the ultra-versatile WR/RB/QB role that Randall Mackey occupied last season.

Wide receiver Donte Moncrief, running back Jeff Scott and four offensive linemen return to an offense that will be will be one of the most dynamic offenses in the SEC outside of College Station, Texas.

And that's just who's returning.

Running back Mark Dodson enrolled early and will be joined by several offensive studs this summer. Imagine what things will look like this summer when wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, running backs Kailo Moore and offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil joining the fray this summer. 

Those incumbents better impress the coaching staff this spring, because there is some serious firepower headed to town.

Seeing what happens along the Ole Miss defensive line this spring will be fun to watch. Everyone assumes that No. 1 overall recruit Robert Nkemdiche will slide right into a starting spot this fall, but the Rebels have plenty of talent returning that will make that more of an assumption than a certainty.

Before Nkemdiche, C.J. Johnson was "the next big thing." The former 4-star linebacker came to Oxford in the class of 2011, dropped down to defensive end last season and broke out with a solid season, totaling 55 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. 

Good? Yes. Living up to the hype? Close.

Now's the time to for Johnson to shine. He's the key to the Ole Miss defense. If he can take the next step, the Ole Miss front seven not only will be one of the best in the SEC, but perhaps even the entire nation.

On the other side of the defensive line is super-sophomore Channing Ward, who will be interesting to watch this spring. The 6'4", 256-pounder notched 21 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss in a part-time role last season. 

With Nkemdiche and Co. coming, Ward is the one who should be looking in his rear view mirror. He has the talent to be a superstar in the SEC and needs to show it now before it's too late. If he does, that will give defensive coordinator Dave Wommack and defensive line coach Chris Kiffin plenty of personnel options when toe meets leather this fall.

Can you imagine Johnson and Nkemdiche lining up at defensive end, with Ward dropping down to defensive tackle in passing situations? That's a defensive coordinator's dream and an offensive line's nightmare.

Don't forget about linebacker D.T. Shackelford.

What? He's still there? Yes, he is.

The linebacker, who was named to the 2009 SEC All-Freshman team and tallied a team-high five sacks in 2010, missed the last two seasons recovering from knee injuries. Shackelford is back in 2012 for his senior season and will join 2012 SEC All-Freshman linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche in the talented Rebel linebacking corps. 

Will Shackelford return to form? If he can, then look out SEC.

Ole Miss is a team on the rise. With national signing day behind Hugh Freeze, it's time for the Rebels—and several key players—to take the next step. If they can, then the rebuilding process will be further accelerated in Oxford.