While the changes at Ole Miss since the end of last season have not garnered as much attention as those that occurred at Tennessee, Texas Tech, or Notre Dame, the Rebel team that takes the field Saturday against the Gamecocks of Jacksonville State is not exactly the one fans imagined back in January.
Gone is Jevan Snead, a preseason Heisman hopeful who fell from grace on the field, but still opted to pursue an NFL career. In is Jermiah Masoli, a preseason Heisman hopeful who fell from grace off the field and came to Oxford looking for absolution and a place to ply his wares.
Shortly after Snead announced his intentions, offensive coordinator Kent Austin took the head gig at Cornell prompting Houston Nutt to reach into the way-back machine and pull out Dave Rader. A former OC at Alabama under Mike Shula, Rader had spent the last three years in Tulsa’s private sector.
Highly touted members of Nutt’s 2009 recruiting class Patrick Patterson, Raymond Cotton and Tig Barksdale—all expected to contribute this year—are no longer part of the program.
Yet, a season once viewed with apprehension by Rebel fans is now colored with optimism; there might just be a good year ahead after all. Obviously Masoli is part of that, but he is just one player on a wholly inexperienced offensive unit—and the NCAA has yet to grant him a residency waiver to play—leaving numerous questions needing answers.
Not all will come in the game against Jacksonville State, but there are some things Rebel Fans should watch for, as they are likely to be thematic for the 2010 season.
Here are ten things to keep an eye on this Saturday:
10. Inexperience in the Secondary
Last week’s injury to FS Fon Ingram—out up to four weeks—means that of the eight players listed on the two-deep at secondary positions, five have never played a down of FBS football and four will be freshmen.
SS Johnny Brown is the only returning starter, but cornerbacks Marcus Temple and Jeremy McGee each have game experience. Each of the three will be backed-up by redshirt freshmen: Dele Junaid at SS, and Charles Sawyer and Frank Crawford at cornerback.
JUCO signee Damien Jackson steps into Ingram’s role at FS, with true freshman Brishen Matthews behind him. Both have impressed in camp, but those performances are all anyone has for reference.
While the talent across the ball is not comparable to what the secondary will see as the season progresses, Jacksonville State—ranked No. 17 in the FCS preseason poll—has been an above average offense in the FCS ranks under Jack Crowe who, coincidentally, used to employ Houston Nutt when Crowe was the head man at Arkansas in 1990.
9. Field Goal Unit
Bryan Rose will step into the role that Joshua Shene manned—with consistency—the last few years in Oxford. Rose won the competition somewhat by default as big-legged kick-off specialist Andrew Ritter had a lot of trouble finding the middle of the uprights in camp.
Though not possessing Ritter’s power, Rose proved to be the most reliable, but with a new holder in Richie Contartesi, the duo still has to prove that coaches and fans need not hold their breath.
Experienced long snapper Wesley Phillips was only recently cleared for contact, which may put true freshman Will Denny into the role on game day.
New kicker? New holder? New snapper? Sounds like something that could go wrong at some point.
8. Jax State OL vs. The Land Sharks
Ole Miss this season will go as far as the defense can take them. The unit—led by defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix—has been the cornerstone of the Rebels’ success the last two years. There are whispers by those around the program that this year’s group might be the best yet.
The inexperience in the secondary suggests that the unit is top-heavy with front seven talents, and it is. ESPN.com’s Chris Low picked that group as the best the SEC has to offer this year.
The Gamecocks have some experience on the line and look to run the ball with Calvin Middleton carrying the bulk of the load. Aforementioned Tig Barksdale recently transferred to Jacksonville State with the help of Coach Nutt, and may get the chance to play against former teammates.
If the Ole Miss front seven is as good as advertised, fans should see plenty of plays dying in the offensive backfield and a big smile on preseason All-American DT Jerrell Powe’s face.
The Rebels may be without starting defensive end and team captain Kentrell Lockett, who traveled to Memphis on Monday for tests after his heart began racing over the weekend.
7. Dave Rader’s Influence
Offensive coordinators under Houston Nutt—who calls his own plays—usually have other, primary responsibilities. Co-OC Mike Markuson is also the offensive line coach, and new co-OC Dave Rader has been tasked with grooming quarterbacks.
Rader’s QBs have seldom been superstars, but they are always good decision makers. With Ole Miss having been one of the worst teams in FBS football the last couple of seasons in turnovers, fans are anxious to see if Rader can have the same success with the Rebel stable of quarterbacks.
Part of that reduction in picks is moving defenders out of passing lanes, which simply did not happen much the last two years. The tight end was the forgotten man of Kent Austin’s passing scheme, essentially allowing an extra defender in coverage.
A game with three or four tosses to either the tight end or full back would be a welcome sight for Rebel Fans.
6. Youth Wins Out at Wide Receiver
Sophomores Melvin Harris and Jesse Grandy have earned the starting nods at WR over returning seniors Markeith Summers and Lionel Breaux.
Harris had a fantastic camp according to coaches, and his surpassing Summers is one of the bigger surprises on the depth chart. At 6’6”, Harris is a big target, but it was his consistency of routes and soft hands that earned his shot. Still, his lack of experience is a huge concern.
Grandy played as a true freshman last season, and showed glimpses of a knack to make big plays. However, most of that was on special teams, and Rebel fans will have to wait and see if the promise shown translates into every down situations.
Other names Rebel fans should look for include Ja-Mes Logan and Vincent Sanders at the wide out positions and Korvic Neat in the slot.
Jacksonville State is a solid defensive team for an FCS opponent, with two talented starting corners. T.J. Heath is a preseason FCS All-American with great experience, but even he admits his counterpart, A.J. “Awesome Jet” Davis might be the better of the two. Davis definitely gets the nickname award.
The pair will not be intimidated by Harris and Grandy and will play confident and probably a little aggressive until given reason not to. Look for the Rebels to try a few big passing plays early.
5. Brandon Bolden at Featured Back
Bolden was not quite ready for the role last season, and Coach Nutt finally moved Dexter McCluster into the starting slot with great success.
Bolden committed himself to getting into better shape for this year and is coming out of camp roughly 15 pounds lighter. Whether the additional playing weight was the one thing holding him back is what everyone is waiting to see.
Bolden has a lot of talent on his heels, and even an improved Bolden may not be enough to hold off Enrique Davis. Entering his junior season, Davis has yet to live up to the hype he brought to Oxford. Ranked the top post-graduate running back in the class of 2008, Davis struggled with the move to major college football.
However, the Davis that showed up in the spring was much different than the one people saw just a few months earlier, and his rediscovered speed and agility was a bright spot of Fall Camp. Some players just take a bit longer than others to acclimate, and if the light has indeed come on for Davis, he could be a breakout star for the Rebels this year.
But the spot is still Bolden’s to lose, and while he has shown reliability, he still needs to convince that he can be the type of back that can carry on offense. Davis will challenge, and expect to see Rodney Scott, true freshman Jeff Scott, and even Devin Thomas get a few chances as well.
4. Wild Rebel
With the addition of JUCO signee Randall Mackey, the thought was putting the versatile athlete in charge of the Wild Rebel package, giving that formation a serious passing threat. However, with still no word on Masoli’s eligibility, Mackey will start as the No. 2 QB.
More than likely that means that the Wild Rebel formation will be run with multiple players, including up to four different running backs. That’s speculative, but if Mackey is not in charge, there are not that many players on the roster that have run the formation successfully and the game against the Gamecocks might be taken as an opportunity to see who does what.
There has been talk of redshirting Mackey if Masoli’s waiver comes through. Though saving Mackey—who probably has the best arm of the three QBs—for next year’s opening game against Boise State is a pretty easy idea to get talked into—if your name is not Randall Mackey—the truth is that the inexperience of the offensive unit as a whole necessitates a strong Wild Rebel package.
An effective Wild Rebel does a lot of things for the Ole Miss Football team: It protects a young offensive line, it puts defensive personnel in unfamiliar roles, and it can really control the clock. Mackey is the best player on the Ole Miss team for this package and Rebel fans should hope to see him run it on Saturday.
3. Interior Offensive Line Play
The greatest worry for Houston Nutt right now has to be the snap. Neither A.J. Hawkins nor Evan Swindoll—both listed as starting centers because neither really separated themselves in camp—have game-time snap experience.
The Jacksonville State defensive line is not SEC caliber, but it is much better than people are currently giving it credit. Led by DT Tim McGee and DE Kevin Dix, the group is athletic and should be one of the better units in FCS play this year.
Not only will the Rebels' center be new, but both starting guards are stepping into starting roles. On the left side, Alex Washington moved over from backing up LT Bradley Sowell. Though he started out slow in the position, offensive line coach Mike Markuson has said he has been very pleased with Washington’s progress.
RG Rishaw Johnson might be the most physically gifted lineman on the Ole Miss roster. He is strong with a bit of a mean streak, and coaches are looking to him to have a breakout—and possible All-SEC caliber—year.
While there is anxiety at how the group will react once play begins, the real concern is getting the ball to the quarterback. Playing center in college is not simply a physical test. A good college center has to be able to adjust blocking schemes based on reads, call out possible blitzes, and then get the ball in the quarterbacks’ hands without a hitch.
It is going to be a storyline for the first few weeks, if not longer.
2. Special Teams Play
The field goal unit got a separate note due to all the new faces and the initial inconsistency shown during Fall Camp, but special teams is going to be a big component of Ole Miss’ overall success.
If you are playing to the strengths of your defense—which Ole Miss will certainly do—coaches will tell you the two quickest ways to beat yourself are turnovers and bad special teams play.
Long, juke-move returns will put you on the newscast, but special teams play is about field position.
The coverage units will have a lot of young players, which always brings up concerns of maintaining assignments. Punter Tyler Campbell has a chance to be special at the position, but his big leg was a bit wild last year and often either out-kicked his coverage or kicked to the wrong side of the field.
It is important for Campbell and his unit to make the field as long as possible for opposing offenses, especially once conference play rolls around. Pay attention to average starting field position for the Gamecocks as an indicator of whether or not Campbell has grown in the position.
Ole Miss fans hope the kickoff return team will be little employed Saturday, but the Rebels have two dynamic players in Jesse Grandy and Jeff Scott slated to run back. With the inexperience of the offense, one could argue on having players with more experience back there to field kicks safely and avoid turnovers, but Nutt and special teams coach James Shibest have gone for the aggressive approach.
Grandy will also return punts, but with all that is on his plate there may be a move to put a more veteran player—like Markeith Summers—in the position at some point.
1. Stamas, Stackey, or Masockeystan
The obvious thing to watch in this Saturday’s game against Jacksonville State is who and how the quarterbacks are used. With Masoli’s eligibility still uncertain at this time, Nutt is preparing the Stackey—Nathan Stanley and Randall Mackey—package.
Stanley will be the starter, which says a lot for both his competitive spirit and talent. Masoli’s arrival could have ruined Stanley, but he did not let it, and in an age when college kids transfer at the slightest grievance, Stanley should be commended for acting like we wish all athletes would act.
A redshirt sophomore, Stanley challenged himself and had a strong showing in Fall Camp. Experience-wise, he is still one game removed for an uninspiring performance in last year’s Cotton Bowl, but there is little question among those around the program that he is a much different player now.
Saturday will be the test for that opinion, and the hope is that Stanley proves himself to be an efficient game manager with good decision making skills, but still enough of a threat to make a big play happen.
Either Masoli will be on the field or he will not depending on the waiver. Rebel fans are pinning a lot of their optimism to the highlight reels they have watched of Masoli at Oregon. If his waiver is granted, Stanley will still get the bulk of work with the first team—he needs the game experience—but Masoli will get reps.
In limbo is Mackey, who will either get reps as the second-team QB and in situational packages, or he may sit out. Again, understanding the argument to redshirt Mackey is one thing, but believing that the Rebels do not need Mackey on the field this year to achieve their newly minted goals is another.
The adage that having two quarterbacks really means you have none is true more often than not in college football. Having three that the coaches are confident in—and they like all three—has not sparked its own quip, but Rebel fans are hoping it might.
Check back on Sunday afternoon for Williamson’s Five Things We Learned Against Jax State. Jeb Williamson covers Ole Miss Football as a Featured Columnist for the Bleacher Report. Click here for other articles.