What a difference a year makes, huh?
An article of this type last season would have been hard-pressed to find eight questions in total when looking at the Ole Miss Football team as it headed into Spring Practice.
Those—we now know—were the Salad Days, when optimism and anticipation failed to foretell that Jevan Snead would struggle; that Mike Wallace might have been the most damaging loss from the 2008 team; and that the running game—sans Dexter McCluster—would produce pedestrian results.
Now, fast forward to this year, where abundant questions and trepidation have left Rebel Nation with eggshells cracking underfoot.
Four Easy Questions
1. Who takes over the Quarterback position?
The Ole Miss offense will take the field next season with an underclassman at the helm: Whether that means sophomore Nathan Stanley or redshirt freshman Raymond Cotton, the coaching staff is hoping this spring’s preparations will provide a definitive answer.
Whoever emerges in the starting role will likely own the faintest of grasps on the position, as the battle is expected to last until—if not throughout—the fall.
2. Who fills the three interior offensive line spots?
With the re-establishment of Rishaw Johnson back into the good graces of Houston Nutt, the right guard spot should be his. However, that still leaves both the left guard and center spot up for grabs.
A plethora of mostly young and untested talent will compete for starting roles, but all will likely see time as offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Mike Markuson tries to piece together—if not outright discover—a center and left guard talented and durable enough to hold up against the strong defensive fronts found in the SEC.
3. Can Markeith Summers lead the receiving corps ?
Summers has long been touted as one of the more naturally gifted receivers on the team with a rare blend of size and speed, but has yet to break through on a consistent level.
He has shown glimpses of big-play ability, yet little to nothing in the way of being a dependable route runner who can move the chains.
Lost in the discussion of Snead’s struggles last year was the fact that the Ole Miss offense produced the conference's only 1,000-yard receiver in Shay Hodge.
Hodge’s ability to make the tough catch in traffic—especially when his team needed him to—is something Summers needs to find a way to replicate.
The suspension of Pat Patterson places even more pressure on Summers, who must not only take over the frontline role for receivers on the field, but—it appears—needs to set the tone for the group off the field as well.
4. Is JUCO signee DE Wayne Dorsey the real deal?
Most commentators have penned Dorsey as the replacement for Greg Hardy.
I really hope he is not.
I’d rather he be another Marcus Tillman.
Hardy’s talent grabbed the headlines, and the velocity with which Hardy resiliently swung between brilliant and broken would look like a tech stock from 1999 if charted.
Tillman—on the other hand—started all but one game in four years for the Rebs, was a team captain, and the recipient of the 2009 Chucky Mullins Courage Award. He also made the Dean’s Honor Roll last fall.
When fans discuss the best players on Ole Miss football teams of the last few years—as good as the others were—I think Tillman trails only Patrick Willis and Michael Oher.
He did not necessarily dominate, but he rarely was beaten, and he was always in the lineup.
That is who Ole Miss needs Wayne Dorsey to be.
Four Hard Questions
1. Was Dave Rader the right choice to replace Kent Austin?
Dave Rader appeared on exactly no one’s list of possible replacements when Kent Austin announced he was taking the head coaching job at Cornell.
Rader had been out of football for three years and was working in the private sector in Tulsa, Okla.
Whatever reasoning head coach Houston Nutt used to choose Rader from the list he put together is his prerogative.
Whoever was chosen would still be graded on the same two questions: (1) Can you develop two young quarterbacks, and (2) Can you design a passing game that gets receivers open?
I have written in several pieces how—I believe—the inability of the Ole Miss offense to challenge safeties into single-coverage roles contributed to Snead’s troubles last year.
Austin’s design of receivers running to and Snead throwing to predetermined spots without variance allowed linebackers and safeties to flood passing lanes, and gave opposing corners the ability to jump routes because they knew they had help.
When reads were to be made by the receiver to adjust to a coverage it appeared at times as though receiver and quarterback where looking at two different markers in the defense.
While unlikely that was actually the case, it did not appear as though reads to be made were ever clearly understood.
Rader has to prove that he can design a passing game that allows for just that while simultaneously proving he can coach Stanley and Cotton into quarterbacks that move the chains and put the ball where it needs to be.
An early sign to look for are receptions by tight ends.
2. Can the defense be as aggressive with an inexperienced secondary?
There is little argument that the strength of the Ole Miss Team the last two seasons has been Tyrone Nix’s defense, especially the play of the front seven.
The ability of that group to win matchups and disrupt the offensive backfield was due—at least in part—to the play of the defensive backfield.
With the loss of free safety Kendrick Lewis added to the departure of both starting corners—Marshay Green and Cassius Vaughn—will Nix have the talent necessary to keep the front seven doing what they do best?
Tough man coverage is one of the staples of Nix’s defense and the young players on the two-deep will be expected to handle one of the deepest pools of receiver talent in the country.
Moreover, half the West Division teams—Arkansas, Auburn and Mississippi State—are moving into their second or third years of using spread offenses which, inherently, force defensive packages to expand their number of secondary personnel.
If Nix is forced to use linebackers in coverage help on a consistent basis, will the Rebels be able to apply the type of pressure that has placed them among the nation’s best the last two years in busted plays and tackles for loss?
3. Can Brandon Bolden be a featured back?
Bolden began last season as the starting tailback and—honestly—was not ready for the job. The running game sputtered, forcing Coach Nutt to move all-everything McCluster from slot receiver into the role about halfway through the season.
Dex ran wild, becoming the first player in SEC history with 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving.
The cost came at the expense of the passing game which struggled to get the ball to anyone not named Shay Hodge.
I wrote in the running backs preview that dogging Bolden was unfair: he was the same back as a sophomore that he was as a freshman.
Can that type of back—tough, but not all that shifty or fast—produce enough yards to take pressure off an inexperienced quarterback and an untested interior line?
Bolden has dropped 10 pounds or so from last year’s playing weight in an attempt to improve agility and quickness, so the recognition of need was on the offseason radar.
How much that improves his play, and whether it is enough to have a breakout season we will learn quickly.
Expect teams to stack the box until the quarterback and offensive line can prove that the passing game is a threat.
As with all Houston Nutt teams, no single running back will shoulder the entire load. Rodney Scott—a true freshman last season—flashed a bright future and will be leaned on heavily in this year’s rotation.
Conversely, much touted Enrique Davis fell short of the promise he carried to Oxford. A breakthrough by Davis—I think—could be the difference between six wins and eight for the Rebels this year.
4. Should Ole Miss Fans be happy rebuilding in Houston Nutt’s third year?
Now, do not go confusing this question as an implication that I believe Nutt is on a seat even remotely warm. It is just that the refrain of head coaches getting three years to turn things at a program around is almost cliché.
Nutt—with back-to-back nine win seasons to open his tenure in Oxford—starting putting W’s on the board much faster than anyone anticipated. Though, it must be noted that Nutt did not face the same challenge in replenishing talent that most new coaches face.
With two of the classes Nutt has brought in ranking in the Top 20 on both Rivals and Scout, the continuum of talent coming into the program is arguably the best in several decades.
So why are the Rebels rebuilding this year?
First, there is the uniqueness of talent that left last year.
The high ability of players like Snead, McCluster, Hodge, Lewis, Tillman, Vaughn and Green placed them on the field early in their careers and kept them there. None missed significant time with injury so the younger players behind them saw sporadic action.
Second, Nutt realized he had the talent to win, but not necessarily the depth. He correctly chose to put development and game experience on the back-burner, knowing how important it was to rid the program of the defeatist attitude that permeated Orgeron’s teams.
The hardest thing in coaching is teaching kids how to win when they have never done so.
Lastly, though Nutt’s last two recruiting classes have been great, the one brought in as he transitioned from Fayetteville to Oxford...not so much.
Along with Bolden, only E.J. Epperson at FB and Ferbia Allen at TE have seen significant playing time. Many others will get their chance this year to prove that the 2008 class is much better than currently viewed.
Considering the change of coaching staffs and the 3-8 record that preceded the 2008 class, I do not think I can argue how it could have gone any different.
When taking a macro view of the last two seasons and the last two recruiting classes, Ole Miss Fans should still be thanking Heaven things are going as well as they have.
If the price to pay for the fun the last two years has yielded is a third year absent the same success, a little humble pie is not going to hurt anyone.
Nutt stated in his Spring Conference presser that this season is apt to be the greatest coaching challenge of his career. New faces abound with little-to-no exposure to game speed or conference talent.
How coaches, players, and even fans respond to the challenge will determine whether or not the 2010 season will ultimately be a stepping stone or a stumbling block.
Jeb Williamson covers Ole Miss Football as a Featured Columnist for the Bleacher Report. He welcomes and appreciates all comments. Click here to view his profile page for other articles.