For Hugh Freeze and the Ole Miss Rebels, spring football practice has been interesting.
At Saturday's Grove Bowl (April 13), Rebel fans will get one last chance to see their club before ESPN's No. 5 recruiting class arrives in Oxford this summer. During the spring, Freeze and company have been able to evaluate a number of positions and players to better gauge team needs ahead of summer.
When 5-star signees like DE Robert Nkemdiche, OT Laremy Tunsil, WR Laquon Treadwell and S Tony Conner officially join the Rebels this summer, competition will reach a fever pitch in Oxford.
Without the services of starting QB Bo Wallace this spring (recovering from shoulder surgery), the Ole Miss offense has struggled at times to find an efficient flow. However, several players like linebacker D.T. Shackelford and CB Nick Brassell have provided bright spots for the team.
On Saturday, be sure to pay close attention to the following areas: quarterback, tight end, linebacker, cornerback and defensive line. While the Rebels will be analyzing potential starters at positions like reserve quarterback, tight end and cornerback, depth is a bigger concern at linebacker and on the defensive line.
Here's a preview of five areas to watch at Ole Miss' spring game on Saturday.
Neither reserve has looked horrible over spring camp, but neither has generated a great deal of praise.
With the chance to have an amazing season in 2013, it's imperative Ole Miss has a solid reserve QB.
In 2012, Brunetti only completed 23 passes for 196 passing yards and a single score. However, he did rush 60 times for 277 yards and three touchdowns. He provided the Rebels with a different look on short-yardage situations, especially in the "Wild Rebel" formation. While he's shown skill escaping defenses and contributing in special formations, Brunetti hasn't been extremely productive as a true quarterback.
On the other hand, the sophomore Miller has yet to throw a single pass for the Rebels. As a freshman last season, he only saw action in two games. The sum of his production was 23 yards on six rushes. However, the 6'2'', 240-pound reserve certainly gives Freeze a different look on offense.
If you add all of the pieces together, a reserve quarterback controversy is brewing in north Mississippi.
With true freshmen QBs Ryan Buchanan and Devante Kincade heading to Ole Miss this summer, the race to be Wallace's heir apparent may soon be wide open.
That being said, pay close attention to how Brunetti and Miller (and senior Robert Ratliff) perform in front of a sizeable crowd at Saturday's Grove Bowl. It could be a statement game for anyone in the running.
Who will the Rebels turn to at tight end in 2013?
That's one of the biggest questions right now for Ole Miss.
While there was no earth-shattering production at tight end in 2012, senior TEs Ferbia Allen and Jamal Mosley did combine for 23 catches, 309 yards and one touchdown last fall.
Without Allen and Mosley this season, Hugh Freeze must pull from an inexperienced reserve pool.
At the top of the list this spring was true freshman Christian Morgan.
The former Florida State commit had looked solid over spring practice at tight end ahead of the arrivals of fellow true freshmen Evan Engram and A.J. Jackson this summer. At 6'4'' and 254 pounds, Morgan has all the pieces to turn into an excellent tight end over his Rebel career.
However, the true freshman recently sustained a torn meniscus that will keep him out of the spring game.
Without Morgan, senior Jack Nuismer should get a good number of looks in the spring game. Beyond the senior reserve, the only true tight ends remaining on the Rebel roster are Matt Brown, Dylan Dyer and Taz Zettergren. Unfortunately, none of the bunch has any college experience.
Which tight end looks the best at the Grove Bowl is literally anyone's guess.
If no player really separates himself from the competition, then true freshmen Engram and Jackson will dramatically increase the level of competition this summer in Oxford.
For the first time since 2010, LB D.T. Shackelford will be on the field for Ole Miss.
Having been injured the past two seasons, the vocal leader will finally get a chance to return to action at the Grove Bowl on Saturday. It should be a bittersweet moment for both Shackelford and Rebel fans, as the Ole Miss star gets one last season of college football glory before graduating.
The linebacker corps in Oxford was pretty good in 2012 behind the play of Denzel Nkemdiche and Mike Marry (both of whom return this season), so it'll be interesting to see exactly how Shackelford fits into things on defensive coordinator Dave Wommack's defense.
He's looked good in his return this spring, but how will he fare in live action on Saturday?
Expect Shackelford to take full advantage of the opportunity for one last season in the SEC.
With his work ethic, will and determination, the senior's sure to find his share of snaps this fall.
A familiar face will be on the field for the Rebels Saturday: Nick "Snoop" Brassell.
After being a key two-way contributor for the Rebels in 2011, Brassell departed Oxford after losing academic eligibility at Ole Miss at the end of 2011. Last season, he played for East Mississippi Community College where he caught passes, returned kickoffs and played in the secondary.
As a true freshman at Ole Miss in 2011, Brassell was really the only bright spot on a Houston Nutt-led team that went 4-8 overall (1-7 SEC). The former U.S. Army All-American is an SEC and NFL star in the making, now he must capitalize on the opportunity.
Given a second chance by Hugh Freeze, Brassell appears to be making the most of the opportunity. In his work at cornerback over spring practice, he's looked like a viable starter this fall across from CB Charles Sawyer.
With the talent level having increased dramatically since Freeze's arrival at Ole Miss, Brassell won't have to be a two-way starter for the Rebels this year. That being said, he's simply too talented of an athlete to field a punt return here or there in 2013.
Brassell knows he's on a tight leash with Freeze and the coaching staff this spring and summer. However, with continued progress on the field and in the classroom, Brassell should return to the SEC with a vengeance this fall.
Rebel fans will again get a chance to see his talents on display Saturday afternoon at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
The biggest downside to spring practice for teams across the nation is the possibility of injury.
Unfortunately for the Rebels, rising star DE C.J. Johnson broke his fibula early in spring drills. While he should return healthy in time for the August 29 opener at Vanderbilt his absence has left a veteran void this spring at defensive end.
Ward recorded 21 tackles as a true freshman last season, but he's a tremendous athlete from which much more is expected. He knows it, too, and has shown coaches an increased level of play this spring. Rebel fans should expect to see even more positive things from Ward this season.
As for the senior Thompson, he seems to have really benefited from redshirting in 2012. Now having learned defensive coordinator Dave Wommack's system for a full season, Thompson looks ready to become a key part of the rotation. He continues to be one of the players that Freeze is speaking highly of this spring, so keep an eye on him at the Grove Bowl.
Between Johnson, Whigham, Ward and Thompson, there appears to be a very steady defensive line rotation setting up for the Ole Miss Rebels. Further, don't forget the nation's No. 1 overall recruit and DE Robert Nkemdiche officially joins the Rebels this summer as a true freshman.
While the defensive end spot is getting a lot of attention right now, pay close attention to the interior defensive lineman during the Grove Bowl as well. With sophomore NT Issac Gross sidelined with a minor injury, DT Byron Bennett has been the only interior lineman available with very much experience over spring ball.
Nevertheless, DTs Woodrow Hamilton, Lavon Hooks and Carlton Martin have all impressed coaches in extended work on the defensive interior. In particular, keep an eye on the JUCO standout Hooks. He's only been with the program for a couple of weeks after enrolling mid-year, but he's got the physical look of an SEC defensive lineman already.
Similar to the situation at defensive end, if Hamilton, Hooks and Martin continue to progress over the summer, the Rebel defensive front could be quite daunting this fall.