The 2012-13 SEC tournament champion Ole Miss Rebel basketball team was honored at the 2013 Grove Bowl on Saturday afternoon in Oxford, an accomplishment that Hugh Freeze's football team will try to achieve in football this season.
After finishing fifth in this year's recruiting class rankings (via 247Sports) with five 5-star prospects—including No. 1 recruit and defensive end Robert Nkemdiche and wide receiver LaQuon Treadwell—there is a buzz about the program at the spring game that hasn't been around since the Eli Manning days in Mississippi.
Although those players didn't suit up for the Rebels in the annual spring game, the expectations for the 2013 season are higher than ever in the Freeze era, making Saturday's first major televised event a huge day for this program.
The format for the Grove Bowl was a little different this year, with about half of the time used as a live practice, focusing on one-on-one drills, special teams work and different offensive and defensive shells to get used to the big-time atmosphere of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
The other half was a live scrimmage, representative of the "spring game" label. There were three sections of scrimmage play, characterized by different units working for the red and blue teams on the afternoon.
The first section consisted of three series on offense. The second was a longer, deeper look at different situations and formations, and the third section was an overtime period of sorts, culminating with an Andrew Ritter field goal that ended the 2013 Grove Bowl on a positive note.
Ole Miss also announced some new uniform options for the 2013 season during an intermission of the action (via Facebook).
Coming into the 2013, most of the question marks surrounding the Ole Miss team are on the offensive side of the ball. The defense was a big strength in 2012, in large part because the No. 1 recruit's brother—Denzel Nkemdiche—had a breakout year.
With Randall Mackey no longer in Oxford, the running back battle should be a big part of the success. While having a starter will be a focus of the start of the 2013 season, the depth with Jeff Scott, I'Tavius Mather, Mark Dotson and Jaylen Walden should help expand the hurry-up offense to new heights.
While each back had some early chances, the running game didn't look all that crisp. Running the read option, each of the quarterbacks made mistakes in the read, and the running backs couldn't get through the initial push of the defense in most other situations.
However, that's what spring games are for.
Quarterback Bo Wallace, recovery from offseason surgery, did not participate in the scrimmage on Saturday, giving way to backups Barry Brunetti, Maikhail Miller and Robert Ratliff. Each QB led an offense in the three offense vs. defense live sessions, but Ratliff led the first touchdown drive of the day.
Nick Parker, the big running back who will likely get most of the goal-line chances in 2013, scored the first touchdown of the afternoon for the Rebels on a touchdown run in the first session after Ratliff completed a long pass to Ja-Mes Logan.
Logan was a favorite target of all three QBs, getting the first play of the game in a hole-shot catch against the Cover 2, as Brunetti got off to a fast start. Both Brunetti and Miller's first drives resulted in field goals, and the offense struggled again during the second portion—mostly consisting of simulated situations and different areas of the field for starting points.
The special teams game was good in the early going, shaky in the middle and finally good again as Ritter's field goal capped off the day, and it should send off the Rebels with both some positive notes and question marks heading into a crucial 2013 season for Freeze's chances to create a long-lasting program in Oxford.
While the format of the game didn't allow for a complete statistical look at the impressive folks of the afternoon, we can still draw some conclusions from the organized attack Ole Miss had on Saturday. Check out some grades for key players from the game below.
WR Ja-Mes Logan: A
Although wide receiver isn't a huge position of strength on this team right now, the combination of Ja-Mes Logan and Donte Moncrief could end up being a big plus for Wallace when he returns as the starter this fall.
Logan got off to a hot start with the stop-and-go route on the outside and also showed the ability to go across the middle of the field on two routes while running a nice flat route too.
The 6'3", 195-pound senior from Texas had 43 receptions playing all over the field in 2012, but adding him to the outside receiver position could end up propelling this offense to have two legitimate threats on the outside.
QB Barry Brunetti: C
Trying to capture a job in the spring can be a tough thing to do, and we saw both sides of how impressive Brunetti can be behind Wallace in 2013 at the Grove Bowl.
Competing with the other QBs on the roster for the reserve spot, Brunetti came out and hit Logan with the 43-yard pass to open up the game but couldn't convert that initial drive for a touchdown, and the Rebels ended up settling for a field goal.
He also looked good in the pocket at times, including a 17-yard scramble in the second session that went for a first down.
However, Brunetti also made some mistakes in the read-option game (as did his counterparts)—an area that has to be his forte to carve out any kind of long-term role in the offense. It was a mixed bag, but he likely still has the lead on the No. 2 spot.
LB Serderius Bryant - A+
The blue team looked solid all day against the red offense, and Bryant was the player who stood out the most on Saturday afternoon.
In addition to being all over the field in run support, Bryant had the play of the day for the Rebel D, picking off a tipped pass and taking it 77 yards (right past his head coach, no less) for a defensive touchdown.
Bryant really looked like a running back on the play and avoided several tackles en route to the end zone.
If he can add some necessary depth to the linebacking corp, there's a good chance Ole Miss' defense will yet again be the best part of its team again in 2013. With Bryant, the elder Nkemdiche and D.T. Shackleford in tow, this could be a strong unit for Freeze in 2013.
It was a tough game to grade, but spring appears to be all but over for Ole Miss. We'll see if they can take that next step in 2013.