Spring Football 25: Ole Miss Rebels

Dr. Saturday will be looking at the 25 most interesting teams headed into spring football through March, examining which programs have the biggest questions, the most expectations and the best storylines. This isn’t a list of the 25 best teams going into the spring, just the 25 we’re keeping the closest eye on. Previously: LSU.

What happened in 2012
For the first time since 2009, Ole Miss finished with a winning record thanks to victories over rival Mississippi State and Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl. The 7-6 campaign in coach Hugh Freeze’s first year coupled by netting the No. 7 recruiting class in the country has given supporters a renewed sense of energy and have some thinking Ole Miss can become a power in the SEC.

Three of the Rebels' six losses were by an average of 3.3 points per game. Because Freeze was taking over a team that was 2-10 last season, teaching them how to win was just as important as any offensive or defensive scheme.

What makes them interesting in 2013
The Rebels lose just three starters from last year’s team, which makes for a very interesting prospect considering the recruiting class that will be joining the group in the fall.

As noted earlier, the Rebels are still learning how to win, but returning 11 players with starting experience on defense is a good place to start. The defensive numbers weren’t great and there’s plenty of room for improvement, especially in the second year of a new system. Ole Miss was ninth in the conference in scoring defense allowing 27.62 points per game and 11th in the conference against the pass (246.54 yards per game). If there was one bright spot, it was the defensive line, which led the conference in tackles for loss with 7.92 per game.

[Also: N.C. State coach's customized recruiting letters are not so personal]

What needs to happen this spring
Now is the time to capitalize on what Ole Miss did a year ago. Quarterback Bo Wallace is out this spring after offseason shoulder surgery, which will give coaches a chance to evaluate a backup quarterback. Senior Barry Brunetti and sophomore Maikhail Miller are the team’s only two options and neither of them are very good. Miller played in two games last year and completed two passes on six attempts. If Miller is ready to step into the backup role, Brunetti could move to another positon.

The Rebels must replace all-everything back Randall Mackey, who graduated. He not only ranked third on the team in rushing, he was fourth on the team in total offense. Jeff Scott, who led the team in rushing a year ago, will handle the bulk of the carries in the backfield, but the Rebels have to find a couple other guys to help balance the attack. Look for I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton to pick up the slack.

The offensive line used a rotation of seven players last season. A.J. Hawkins graduated and Aaron Morris will miss spring drills as he recovers from offseason surgery, leaving the door open for several other players to find a place for themselves in the offensive line depth.

Lastly, the secondary was a little bit of a mess last season. Wesley Pendelton is gone, but there’s a bevy of talent waiting in the wings this spring. Senquez Golson and Charles Sawyer return as starters at corner, but look for early enrollee Quadarias Mireles and Nick Brassell to be potential contenders to shake up that rotation. Brassell has had academic trouble, so that might hamper his playing time.

Cody Prewitt and Trae Elston return as proven safeties, but again, finding depth behind them will be a major task for new secondary coach Jason Jones this spring.

Game changers
Linebacker D.T. Shackleford appears ready to take the field for the first time in more than two seasons after knee injuries have kept him sidelined. Shackleford initially tore his ACL the spring following his sophomore season in 2011. He started six games that previous fall and emerged as the best defensive player in the Rebels' lineup. He had surgery in April 2011, missing the entire 2011 season and then reaggravated it in August last year and missed 2012 as well. He’s finally healthy and could make a major impact in Ole Miss’ front seven.

If Shackleford can be the player who was feared in 2009 and 2010, the Rebels’ linebacking corps – along with Denzel Nkemdiche and Mike Marry - could be one of the most formidable units in the SEC.

Wild cards
Tight ends were lightly used last year, which will make them an interesting commodity this spring. Unfortunately, Ferbia Allen, Jamal Mosley and fullback H.R. Greer, who helped out at TE, are all gone. That leaves the door open for John Youngblood and early enrollee Christian Morgan. The Rebels have a strong receiving corps back this season and the addition of a strong tight end - or even tight end duo – could do wonders for the Rebels offense.

Key games
Aug. 31 at Vanderbilt
Sept. 28 at Alabama
Oct. 12 Texas A&M
Oct. 19 LSU
Nov. 30 at Mississippi State

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Check out Dr. Saturday's other spring previews: Notre Dame, Texas, Oklahoma, Stanford, South Carolina , Baylor, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Clemson, West Virginia, Missouri , Tulsa, Arkansas.

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