Posted by Jerry Hinnen
College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice . So we here at the Eye on College Football will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers . Today, we look at Ole Miss , which starts spring practice today.
Spring Practice Question: Can the Ole Miss defense be rebuilt?
As the local Clarion-Ledger pointed out today , the headline story regarding Houston Nutt's fourth spring camp at the Rebel helm will undoubtedly be the quarterback derby. Following Jeremiah Masoli's single-season cameo, four different quarterbacks are battling it out under new Rebel offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach David Lee: pocket passers Nathan Stanley (Masoli's backup in 2010 and the narrow favorite) and JUCO transfer Zack Stoudt, and dual-threat QBs Randall Mackey and Barry Brunetti. (Brunetti, a transfer from West Virginia, will need a hardship waiver from the NCAA in order to avoid sitting out his transfer year this fall.) Lee swears any of the four could be named the Rebel starter this fall, and given how little experience any of the four enters the competition with, he's likely not exaggerating.
But as intriguing as the quarterback battle promises to be, what's most important for the Rebels' chances this fall is what will happen on the other side of the ball. While the occasionally-rocky transition to Masoli drew plenty of attention, in the end the Rebels finished a respectable 43rd in total offense. But despite the presence of eight senior starters to begin the season, Ole Miss finished a disastrous 105th in the country in yards per-play allowed, worst in the SEC. It's fair to say the Rebels weren't paying defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix one of the nation's highest assistant salaries to watch the team lose games in which they scored 24, 31, 36 or -- in the case of their infamous season-opening embarrassment against FCS Jacksonville State -- 48 points.
Nix has survived to try and clean up his own mess, but it's not clear if he has the tools with which to do it. As you might expect from that "eight senior starters" detail, the Rebels' defensive losses are major; gone are All-SEC tackle Jerrell Powe, explosive defensive end Kentrell Lockett, leading tackler and tackler-for-loss linebacker Jonathan Cornell, a pair of senior safeties, assorted other contributors at tackle, corner, and linebacker ... Nix won't be starting from scratch, but scratch and the point he'll start from won't be more than a stone's throw apart.
There is good news for the Ole Miss defense, though, and it's two-fold:
1. Obviously, all of those seniors didn't do a whole lot for the Rebels in 2010. While there's no good way to spin the losses of players like Powe and Cornell, as a unit Ole Miss really can't get a whole lot worse than they were last season. In many cases, the new blood may prove to be a better option than the old blood was anyway.
2. Thanks to some impressive recruiting hauls (particularly by Ole Miss standards) by Nutt and his staff, the talent cupboard is far from bare. Nix won't have a lot in the way of experience to work with, but the raw material with which a good defense could be constructed should be there.
That's especially true in the front seven, where Nix will call on junior linebacker D.T. Shackelford to spearhead the rush defense after Shackelford recorded 9 tackles-for-loss a year ago and continued to flash the kind of big-hitting potential that made him one of Nutt's most prized recruits in the class of 2009. Junior weakside linebacker Joel Kight should also be ready for a big season after winning a starting job in last year's fall camp, making the LBs a strength. If Nix can find any tackles following the loss of the entire rotation from a year ago -- expect 310-pound JUCO arrival Gilbert Pena to get a long look -- the line shouldn't be too shabby, either, given the presence of high-ceiling ends like senior Wayne Dorsey, junior Gerald Rivers and sophomore Cameron Whigham. (If Lockett receives a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA, things will look even better this fall.)
The biggest question mark is in the secondary, which a year ago was roasted to the tune of 8.4 yards per passing attempt and a 6-to-24 interception-to-touchdown ratio, both easily the worst marks in the SEC. Up to nine players will compete for the four starting spots (though returning starting corner Marcus Temple is out with a sports hernia), but are any of them SEC caliber? Nix will have to hope so, with the most likely candidates senior safety Damien Jackson and sophomore safety Brishen Matthews.
No one would argue the quarterback battle isn't critical. But with what should be one of the SEC's best offensive lines (one with all five starters returning), rugged running back Branden Bolden, several big-play receivers, and Nutt and Lee's combined offensive acumen, the Rebels should have a functional attack no matter who winds up taking snaps.
The same simply can't be said of the Rebel defense--meaning that even if the QB competition grabs the headlines, it's a sure bet it's the battles on the other side of the ball that will have a huge, huge share of the coaches' attention. If Nix can't find the players this spring that will push his unit forward this fall, the Rebels are going to almost certainly spend a second season in the cellar of the SEC West.