College football never ends. And during the next few weeks, teams will be getting ready for the 2013 season in their spring practice sessions. Here's a look at the Ole Miss Rebels and what they'll be working on this spring.
Spring practice began: March 17
Spring game: April 13
2012 record: 7-6 (fifth SEC West, BBVA Compass Bowl champions)
Returning starters: 19 (nine offensive, 10 defensive)
The Least You Should Know About Ole Miss This Spring
-- There are actual expectations. Like with James Franklin and Vanderbilt in 2011, Hugh Freeze in 2012 took over an Ole Miss program reeling from a winless SEC season and 2-10 overall record, one with little on-paper talent and a fan base just hoping for some improvement and, oh, four or five wins. Like Franklin and Vanderbilt in 2011, Freeze did those expectations one better, reaching .500 in the regular season and earning a surprise bowl berth. And also like Franklin and Vandy in 2011, things could have been even better for the Rebels in 2012 -- Freeze's team had Texas A&M all but beaten before a late fourth-quarter collapse and also lost late leads to LSU and Vanderbilt. Given a couple more breaks, Freeze's debut in Oxford could have been an eight- or nine-win season.
But unlike Franklin and Vandy -- who, despite that success still seemed to catch the SEC by surprise en route to a 9-4 encore season -- Ole Miss won't have the luxury of flying under anyone's radar in 2013, thanks to their season-ending statements against Mississippi State and Pitt and their blockbuster recruiting class. The Rebels proved last year that they'll be plenty good enough to win double-digit games this year, given how much talent returns, but they'll have to overcome a level of pressure not seen around Vaught-Hemingway Stadium since 2009. And the job of overcoming it starts now.
-- The secondary needs to take a step forward. The Rebels were better than virtually anyone expected on defense in 2012 -- especially in the ground game, where they finished in the top half of the SEC in both total rush defense and yards allowed per-carry -- but there's still plenty of room for improvement in the secondary, which gave up more yards per pass attempt than any SEC team other than Tennessee or Arkansas. Breakdowns late in the Vanderbilt and A&M losses were partciularly costly, too. On paper, corners Senquez Golson and Charles Sawyer and big-hitting safeties Trae Elston and Cody Prewitt have the talent and now the experience to be one of the SEC's steadier units. Now they just need to take the strides this spring necessary to play like it in the fall.
-- Ditto Bo Wallace. After multiple years of quarterbacking chaos under Houston Nutt, the position seems like one of the smaller question marks entering 2013 thanks to Wallace's strong first year after arriving from junior college. But given the Rebels' strengths elsewhere on offense -- star-in-the-making Donte Moncrief and a host of other must-be-covered wideouts; fleet running back Jeff Scott; four returning offensive linemen plus the nation's top tackle in the class of 2013, Laremy Tunsil, arriving in the fall; Freeze's clear offensive vision and shrewd play-calling -- the only thing seeming to stand between the Rebels and an elite offense to rival the A&Ms and Georgias of the world is Wallace. The rising junior was stellar in the Rebels' wins but made far too many mistakes against the likes of Texas, LSU or Georgia to pull out the victory. Another soild spring in full command of the offense should help push Wallace (and his attack) over the top, but that's easy to say and harder to do.
-- The early enrollees might be able to help. Freeze has reeled in five of them for spring, including two potential immediate-impact signees: five-star junior college defensive tackle Lavon Hooks and corner/receiver Nickolas Brassell, who established himself as a future SEC star in his freshman season in Oxford before poor academics rerouted him to junior college for a year. Jackson's Clarion-Ledger reports that Brassell still has "significant academic hurdles to overcome," but also that Freeze and Co. view him as such a key potential contributor -- likely in that questionable secondary -- that the Rebels have arranged for morning practices in part to give Brassell tutor time in the afternoons. If that works out, if Hooks is the real deal and the other three early enrollees find their feet fast, it could be just the icing on quite the tremendous recruiting cake.