NCF Nation: Tyrone Nix

Hugh Freeze enters his first spring at Ole Miss with a lot of questions surrounding his new football team.

The same team that won just two games last year, watched its head coach get shown the door and has lost 14 straight SEC games.

Talk about a project.

For starters, Ole Miss is breaking in a totally new spread offense for a team that isn't exactly built for it. Plus there are four scholarship quarterbacks competing this spring and the ones who played last year had a host of issues.

Don't be surprised if junior college transfer Bo Wallace turns some heads this spring at QB because he's more familiar with Freeze's offense. He spent 2010 with Freeze at Arkansas State before going the JUCO route. While he had a record-setting season at East Mississippi Community College in 2011, Wallace has zero experience at this level. He redshirted in 2010, so he has yet to take a snap at the FBS level.

The defense will also see quite a few changes, as defensive coordinator Dave Wommack has said he plans to move the Rebels all around the field. Ole Miss ran a 4-2-5 defense last year under Tyrone Nix, but will come out in multiple sets this time around. It's going to take some time for players to adjust. It also means the Rebels might have to rely more on its secondary again. The good thing for Ole Miss is that just about everyone from the secondary is back, including standouts Charles Sawyer and Wesley Pendleton.

Sawyer might have been Ole Miss' best defensive player last year, while Pendleton has a chance to be a very solid corner in the SEC next fall. Also, keep an eye on Aaron Garbutt, who transferred from the JUCO ranks last year and was sixth on the team in tackles. Getting more out of them this spring will go a long way to helping this defense adjust.

At linebacker, the Rebels return all four starters, but adjusting to the new defensive formations could be more of a chore for them. But having Mike Marry back will be big for the Rebels this spring, considering D.T. Shackelford won't go through the spring as he recovers from another surgery on his knee. Marry filled in nicely for Shackelford last season, leading the Rebels in tackles as just a sophomore.

Marry will be accompanied by rising sophomores Serderius Bryant and C.J. Johnson. Bryant was the better of the two former freshmen last season and was fourth on the team in tackles. For Johnson, the spring will be crucial for his maturation. He started to come on strong toward the end of the season, but he still needs to make strides in his game before the end of the summer. Johnson could also line up at defense end, a position that must replace former star Kentrell Lockett.

The defense has more positives, but there are still questions surrounding where guys will lineup and how they'll take to all the changes. Plus, this is practically the same group that ranked last in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense in the SEC last year.

On offense, finding a quarterback is priority No. 1, with improving an offensive line that took more than a few steps back in 2011 as a close second. Two starters are gone from the line and Freeze has said that the linemen he has weren't recruited for a "more power-type offense."

Freeze has a lot on his plate, but he knew that coming in. He understands that there were locker room issues in the past and the field issues are well documented. This won't be a quick fix by any means, but this spring will be really interesting for Freeze because even he'll have a lot of questions of his own to sort through when the Rebels start digging deep into spring practice.

Ole Miss' Superman lives

September, 9, 2011
Tyrone Nix waited patiently for his fifth-year senior defensive end to regain his football legs.

[+] EnlargeKentrell Lockett
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireMississippi coordinator Tyrone Nix is happy to have defensive end Kentrell Lockett healthy.
Ole Miss’ defensive coordinator didn’t want to push him because he was less than a year removed from a major ACL injury. Nix expected a long recovery, so baby steps didn’t bother him.

However, that veteran was Kentrell Lockett, the self-proclaimed “Superman,” and his baby steps are sprints.

And he literally sprinted his way through Ole Miss’ first major scrimmage this preseason. Nix watched as the offense made play after play. His frustration was starting to build, until Lockett showed up.

With the offense feeling good about itself, Lockett jumped, batted down a pass, snatched the ball out of the air and then took it in for a touchdown. Nix could see Lockett’s confidence was back. His instincts were back at work, as he knew how to play the block, knew the situation and he didn’t panic.

“That’s what you expect from a leadership position. That’s what you expect from a guy that’s been through many battles,” Nix said.

“A guy like Kentrell, who’s been in many huddles, things like that don’t shake him up.”

Lockett, who was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA, spent the spring rehabbing, though he assures he was fine once he dropped his crutches late last year and returned for preseason practice.

Lockett said this summer that he was excited to get back around his teammates and practice, but getting back into a game actually left the verbose Lockett speechless. Lockett finished Ole Miss’ opener with just two tackles and admitted that it took him some time to adjust to BYU’s tackles after facing his own guys in camp, but being out there was more than refreshing.

“It felt good to hit someone and actually hit them how you want to hit them instead of having to hold back and have the coaches say to stay up,” Lockett said. “I could actually play football.”

When Locket couldn’t play football, he met his own personal kryptonite. He couldn’t practice, couldn’t play and couldn’t celebrate with his teammates. So, why be around it? He distanced himself, only watching games from home, where he hid his pain.

“The days I did do that, I went home and cried to my wife about it -- just cried,” Lockett said. “Then, she was like, ‘Man, you gotta stop.’ It took her to get me out of that rut.”

Not having Lockett around also hurt the team. The mental edge was gone and the locker room’s most trusted leader wasn’t there for encouragement.

“Guys of that type of character help you pull through times and forms of adversity,” Nix said of Lockett.

It wasn’t until Lockett finally threw the crutches down and could walk up the stairs to the practice field under his own power that he felt comfortable around the team.

Now, he has a new outlook on his football life, as he’s no longer taking anything for granted.

“I’ve grown so much mentally since last year, since the injury occurred,” he said.

“This one play could be your last. I’m having fun. I’m giving it 110 percent no matter what because it might be one play away. I don’t know what might happen, just like what happened last time.”

Lockett might look at football differently, but the same goofy, loud, talkative, happy Lockett who was beloved by his teammates is still there. He hasn’t changed his personality and he thinks that’s added some juice to this defense.

His encouragement has gone a long way so far and his message to his team is still the same even after a heartbreaking opening loss: play your game and things will fall into place.

“All we have to do is come out, execute, play ball and have fun,” he said. “If you said you had fun and you gave it 110 percent, you’re all right. You’re OK.”

Rebels 'D' makes big statement

September, 3, 2011
With the exception of a few plays here and there, the first half of Ole Miss' season opener was pretty boring.

And that's just fine with Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix.

His defense, which gave up points and yardage by the mile last season, flexed the kind of muscle in the first half against BYU that you're accustomed to seeing from Nix's defenses.

The Rebels, who lead 3-0 at the half, held BYU quarterback Jake Heaps to 74 passing yards on 10-of-21 attempts. BYU managed just 102 total yards.

So far, it's a far cry from what happened to the Ole Miss defense in the opener last season. The Rebels were shredded in a shocking upset loss to Jacksonville State, which effectively ended their season just as it was beginning.

The Rebels' pride was bruised by what happened last season, in particular the defense.

Anybody who really knows Nix knew he would have this group ready to play this season, and it's certainly been an impressive start.

Offensively, the Rebels can thank speedy running back Jeff Scott for being ahead. He fielded a punt inside his 5 and took it back 44 yards. He followed that up with a 16-yard catch and run on a screen pass to help set up Bryson Rose's 20-yard field goal.

The Rebels are going to need more offense in the second half to win this one, but it looks like they're a lot more capable of grinding out games than they ever were a year ago.
Ole Miss’ defense is getting back to the roots of it all.

Fundamentals, attitude, a blue-collar work ethic and trying to outwork others will be the foundation of a defense that was a disaster in 2010.

Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said his players took their talents and what those before them did for granted last season. Players strutted around thinking the red carpet was going to roll out for them each game.

It didn’t come close to working that way as the Rebels ranked last in the SEC in scoring defense (35.2 points per game) and 11th in total defense (399.2) and passing defense (246.3). Ole Miss also allowed opponents to score a league-high 95 percent of the time when they ventured into the red zone (27 touchdowns and eight field goals in 37 attempts).

[+] EnlargeJoel Kight
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireJoel Kight is part of an Ole Miss defense that expects to be improved this season.
That’s a far cry from the defenses Nix led at Ole Miss in the previous two seasons. Those defenses commanded respect and delivered results. Last year’s defense just struggled to keep its head above water.

This season, Ole Miss is dealing with a slew of younger players on defense. It has been both exciting and tiresome for Nix and his defensive staff, but with days until the Rebels’ tough season-opener against BYU, Nix says he’s happy with where his defense is.

“These kids have really worked hard and are trying to restore some of the respect that was lost last year,” Nix said. “We built this thing up in the first couple of years and earned a lot of respect defensively and we’re going to continue to work toward that.”

In order to do that, this group has had to shovel away its pride and start over. Nix said he’s seen players getting to meetings on time or earlier this time around. Players are holding each other accountable instead of assuming they’ll get it right on the next play.

There is fire and determination in practice, Nix said, and he sees that in his coaching staff as well. Nix said the addition of Keith Burns as the secondary coach has been a major boost for the defense and added that the coaches have become better teachers. They too took past talents for granted.

Senior linebacker Joel Kight agrees: This team thought the past would push it in 2010. He was also wrong, but he also sees a change.

Kight sees more togetherness and trust among players. Youngsters are being vocal, but they are also willing to listen to veterans. Kight is being looked at as a leader, but he’s made sure he hasn’t fallen off in practice or his words will mean zilch to players, especially the young ones -- and there are a lot who will see the field early.

Top-rated linebackers C.J. Johnson and Serderius Bryant are expected make major impacts. So are defensive backs Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson.

While Nix admits no true freshmen are ready to be regular starters, he thinks they’ll contribute a lot, starting with the opener.

Seasoned players will also guide this team. Senior end Kentrell Lockett is back after blowing out his knee last season, providing a tremendous presence in the pass rush. Wayne Dorsey will be assisting opposite, while Marcus Temple will lead a more athletic defensive backfield.

The hope, Kight said, is that everyone doesn't hold back this year.

“They say we have a lot of potential. I don’t really like the word potential,” he said. “I want to see us use that potential. We’re very talented and it’s up to us to be a good overall, all-around defense.”

But there will be plenty of hiccups. It’s hard for a unit to perform an instant 360, and Nix is fine with that. What he won’t tolerate is complacency. For the defense to shake last season’s setback, it will have to rediscover itself and get back to the foundation of football.

“You’re either at the top or at the bottom because everybody sitting in between is just a juggling act,” he said. “Right now, we’re at the bottom of it and we want to finish on top and all we can do is control the present and that’s play the best we can, play as a team and play fundamentally sound. If we do those things I think we’ll be happy with our season this year.”

SEC scrimmage recap

August, 22, 2011
Looking back at some of the scrimmage highlights from this past Saturday:


Alabama coach Nick Saban would like to see more of his second-team players playing at a higher level, but he was pleased with his first units in last Saturday's scrimmage. In particular, he said the quarterbacks threw the deep ball well, and the Crimson Tide made more explosive plays down the field than they did the week before. Don't be surprised if senior receiver Marquis Maze emerges this season as one of the top big-play threats in the league. Saban continues to say that both quarterbacks, AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims, are going to play, although Alabama is not releasing any quarterback statistics from the closed scrimmages. The Crimson Tide are still searching for their best combination in the offensive line. True freshman Cyrus Kouandjio has been everything Alabama thought he was and is making a legitimate run at the starting left tackle job. It's also been a very good preseason camp for sophomore offensive guard Anthony Steen.


The Tigers' scrimmage last Saturday focused more on the younger players, so true freshman Kiehl Frazier took the snaps at quarterback. One of the stars of the scrimmage was true freshman receiver Quan Bray. He's not the only first-year playmaker who's made a name for himself this preseason. It's also been a big camp for true freshman running back Tre Mason. Two other true freshmen expected to contribute right away are center Reese Dismukes and safety Erique Florence. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said after the scrimmage that it was the toughest decision he's had in picking a starting quarterback. Junior Barrett Trotter helped separate himself with his mental and physical toughness, according to Malzahn. Freshman receiver Sammie Coates will have foot surgery this week.


Back from a groin injury, true freshman tailback Isaiah Crowell was impressive last Saturday during the scrimmage part of the Bulldogs' practice. Coach Mark Richt told reporters that Crowell had a "couple of great runs" and also had a "great run after the catch" for a touchdown. It was the first time Crowell had gone full speed since injuring his groin on Aug. 12. True freshman receiver Malcolm Mitchell sat out Saturday with a pulled leg muscle, but is making a strong bid to be one of the Bulldogs' top three receivers. One of the surprises this preseason for Georgia has been that junior college newcomer John Jenkins hasn't been able to overtake Kwame Geathers at nose guard. Jenkins sat out Saturday after pulling his hamstring Friday in practice.


Coach Joker Phillips liked the aggressiveness of his defense in last Saturday's scrimmage. He said the Wildcats are running to the ball and attacking from different angles. One of first-year defensive coordinator Rick Minter's priorities was to create more turnovers. The first-team defense gave up a couple of big plays early in the scrimmage, but settled down after that, Phillips said. Quarterback Morgan Newton continues to play with confidence this preseason, and Phillips really likes Newton's command of the offense right now. The Wildcats are still trying to settle on their starting receivers, although Phillips felt like they caught the ball as a team better on Saturday.


The Rebels' first-team defense was missing some key players nursing injuries in last Saturday's scrimmage, including linebacker Joel Kight and safety Damien Jackson, but defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix was still pleased with some of the turnovers they were able to create. Wesley Pendleton and Tanner Burns both had interceptions, and true freshman linebacker C.J. Johnson had another big scrimmage. There's still no word on Ole Miss' starting quarterback, and coach Houston Nutt is content to let the competition play out. Randall Mackey started out with the first team and was intercepted by Pendleton on his first play, but came back later in the scrimmage and threw a 53-yard pass to Donte Moncrief.


Coach Steve Spurrier was anything but pleased with his offense following last Saturday's scrimmage. But the defense? That was a different story. "The defense took charge," said Spurrier, noting that the offense had trouble making a first down when they put the ball on the 30. Quarterback Stephen Garcia struggled through a 3-for-11 day passing and was also intercepted once. Backup quarterback Connor Shaw, who played extremely well in the last scrimmage, didn't participate in this scrimmage after injuring his thumb. He hopes to return this week. The Gamecocks held out star running back Marcus Lattimore and star receiver Alshon Jeffery from the full-field part of the scrimmage. Once again, freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney made his presence felt. This should be the Gamecocks' best defensive line in a long time.


The offense and defense differed as to who won last Saturday's scrimmage, but coach Derek Dooley felt like there was improvement across the board. The first-team offense put together a pair of drives that were at least 10 plays. Quarterback Tyler Bray had his most efficient performance of the preseason scrimmages, going 10-for-20 for 144 yards and a 5-yard touchdown pass to true freshman Vincent Dallas. Dooley feels like the Vols will be better equipped to run the football this season. True freshman Marlin Lane's speed has helped. Defensively, true freshman outside linebacker Curt Maggitt has been one of the stories of preseason camp. He had four tackles in Saturday's scrimmage.


The defense forced five turnovers, and it was an overall sloppy performance by the Commodores' passing game in last Saturday night's scrimmage. Dropped passes plagued Vanderbilt on offense. It wasn't a live scrimmage, and the whistle blew when defenders touched the offensive player. Still, coach James Franklin was pleased with his defense's performance. Cornerback Trey Wilson intercepted a Larry Smith pass and returned it 35 yards. Backup quarterback Jordan Rodgers was intercepted on back-to-back passes. The offense managed just two touchdowns in the 99-play scrimmage. The Commodores are still looking for somebody other than Jordan Matthews at the receiver position to emerge as a consistent playmaker.

Another tough blow for Ole Miss

April, 12, 2011
A little more than a week ago, they were rejoicing at Ole Miss after receiving the news that senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett had been granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA.

[+] EnlargeD.T. Shackelford
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisMississippi will have a difficult time replacing linebacker D.T. Shackelford, who suffered a knee injury in practice.
Much more somber news arrived Tuesday when MRI results revealed that junior linebacker D.T. Shackelford tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during Monday's practice. He will have surgery in the next two weeks, and Ole Miss officials are saying his recovery time will last anywhere from six to eight months.

In other words, the Rebels will likely be without Shackelford for all of next season.

That's a blow in so many different ways for the Rebels. From a production standpoint, he was easily Ole Miss' best linebacker, a guy they could move around and get production out of no matter where he lined up. He was also one of the better pass-rushers on the team and started five games at defensive end last season.

Having Shackelford and Lockett on the field together would have opened up a lot of possibilities for Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix. Both are big-time pass-rushers, and both have a knack for making big plays.

What's more, having them both on field together was exactly the kind of leadership the Rebels needed on defense after going through the struggles they did a year ago on that side of the ball.

Shackelford was the heartbeat of Ole Miss' team in a lot of ways. He set the tone with his work ethic, was also a vocal leader and saw to it that everybody was on the same page.

Had you asked Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt entering the spring who was the guy he could least afford to lose on this team to injury, I guarantee you that Shackelford would have been one of the first or second names to come out of his mouth.

Plus, the Rebels were already losing two senior starters at linebacker in Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker.

Sophomore middle linebacker Mike Marry and junior strong side linebacker Joel Kight have both had good springs. But the weakside spot is wide open, meaning incoming freshman C.J. Johnson will get every opportunity to show what he can do. Johnson was one of the Rebels' most prized signees in this class.

SEC spring preview: Western Division

February, 22, 2011
Mississippi State hits the practice field next Friday to kick off spring practice in the SEC, and several other teams will follow the next week.

Football is back, and here’s a snapshot of what to watch this spring in the Western Division:


Start of spring practice: March 21
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • McCarron or Sims? If you’re looking for one of the more intriguing position battles of the spring, it doesn’t get much better than A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims battling it out for the Alabama starting quarterback job. Both players are extremely talented and were highly rated coming out of high school, and they’re vying to replace a guy who was the essence of precision, smarts and productivity all wrapped into one -- Greg McElroy. McCarron played a little bit last season as a redshirt freshman, while Sims redshirted. We’ll see if one separates himself enough this spring for Nick Saban to name a starter.
  • Back in the SEC: In addition to settling on a starting quarterback, the other thing the Crimson Tide would like to determine this spring is who will be protecting that quarterback from the left tackle position. Junior college signee Aaron Douglas is probably the guy to beat. He’s already on campus after attending Arizona Western College last year and drawing a wide array of interest from schools. He started his career at Tennessee, where he earned Freshman All-American honors in 2009 while playing right tackle for the Vols.
  • Rushing the passer: The Crimson Tide would like to amp up their pass rush next season, which means getting there without having to blitz all the time. Jack linebacker Courtney Upshaw finished last season on fire and lived in the opposing backfield his last two games. This is an important spring for middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who’s also been used outside in pass-rushing situations. Hightower was coming off reconstructive knee surgery last season and didn’t appear to be all the way back. He’s eager to show this spring that he is all the way back and poised to be an All-SEC player again.

Start of spring practice: March 15
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Mr. Wilson: A year ago, Tyler Wilson got a chance to show what he could do with the first unit because Ryan Mallett broke a bone in his foot and missed the spring after undergoing surgery. This spring, it’s Wilson’s show again, although Mallett won’t be coming back this time. Wilson, a sophomore, is the odds-on favorite to win Arkansas’ starting quarterback job. He passed for 332 yards and four touchdowns against Auburn last season on the road after Mallett was knocked out of the game with a concussion. Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said he thinks Wilson can be a terrific quarterback, but wants to see him beat out Brandon Mitchell and Jacoby Walker for the job before handing him the keys to the Hogs’ offense.
  • Getting defensive: The Hogs’ defense took the kind of step last season that was required to get them to 10 wins. They went from 89th in the country in total defense in 2009 to 36th in the country a year ago. The key figures from that defense return next season, and Petrino has said he thinks Arkansas will be even better on defense in 2011 than it was last season. Finding a replacement for Anthony Leon at one of the linebacker spots will be important this spring, and the Hogs could still use some more speed in the secondary.
  • Fourth-quarter blues: Special emphasis was placed on winning the close games last season and getting it done in the fourth quarter. That will be a familiar cry on the practice field again this spring. All three of Arkansas' losses last season came on the heels of fourth-quarter breakdowns. The Hogs couldn’t hold a lead at home against Alabama, and the Crimson Tide rallied from two touchdowns down in the fourth quarter to win. At Auburn, the Hogs were snowed under by a 28-point Auburn avalanche in the fourth quarter. And in the Sugar Bowl, the Hogs couldn’t capitalize in the final minutes despite blocking a punt and recovering inside the Ohio State 20.

Start of spring practice: March 23
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Playing with a target: Auburn emerged from the shadows last season to go 14-0 and win its first national championship since 1957. Nobody really saw the Tigers coming. Now, even though they lost great players the caliber of Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, everybody will be circling the Auburn game on their calendars. With so many new faces in key positions, this team will have to establish its own identity and be prepared to get everybody’s best shot every weekend.
  • Rebuilding the O-line: It’s hard to imagine Auburn playing a game without departed senior offensive line starters Lee Ziemba, Mike Berry, Byron Isom and Ryan Pugh. They were together so long and made so many career starts alongside each other. This spring, the Tigers start the process of replacing their four rocks up front. The lone holdover from the BCS National Championship Game is right tackle Brandon Mosley, although A.J. Greene was also a starter last season until he injured his ankle. Redshirt freshman Ed Christian is definitely somebody to watch at one of the guard spots, and don’t forget about junior John Sullen, who can play guard or tackle.
  • Trotter in the race: Even as great as Newton turned out to be, coach Gene Chizik and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn were careful to make sure Newton was clearly the guy before naming him the starter at the conclusion of spring practice and heading into the summer. Junior Barrett Trotter and sophomore Clint Moseley were two of the guys battling with Newton last spring. But this spring, they will be battling each other for the starting quarterback job, a battle that’s likely to continue into preseason practice once heralded true freshman Kiehl Frazier arrives on campus this summer.

Start of spring practice: March 11
Spring game: April 9

What to watch:
  • Quarterback derby: Perhaps the most closely watched quarterback battle this spring will occur at LSU, where seniors Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee will try and hold off talented junior college signee Zach Mettenberger. Jefferson played better toward the end of last season, but the Tigers’ passing game was nonexistent for much of the 2010 season. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Mettenberger put up huge numbers in junior college last season after starting his career at Georgia. He obviously didn't sign with LSU to sit and watch.
  • Kragthorpe to the rescue: Former Louisville head coach Steve Kragthorpe takes over as LSU’s offensive coordinator and does so after the Tigers finished 11th in the SEC last season in total offense and last in the SEC in 2009. Kragthorpe wants to make sure LSU is getting the ball in the hands of its best playmakers, but he also wants to make sure the Tigers are balanced. Their running game improved dramatically last season. With Stevan Ridley leaving early for the NFL draft, Spencer Ware is next in line after rushing for 102 yards in the Cotton Bowl.
  • Special-teams makeover: The Tigers were gutted on special teams. Even special teams coordinator Joe Robinson left to take a job on North Carolina’s staff. Also gone are All-SEC place-kicker Josh Jasper, All-SEC return specialist Patrick Peterson and punter Derek Helton, who was second in the SEC with a punting average of 45.7 yards per game. LSU will be looking to fill voids across the board this spring in its kicking game, which was a big reason the Tigers won 11 games last season.

Start of spring practice: March 4
Spring game: April 9
End of spring practice: April 11

What to watch:
  • New defensive chief: Manny Diaz was hired away by Texas to be the Longhorns’ defensive coordinator, meaning co-defensive coordinator Chris Wilson is now the guy running things in Starkville. Diaz and Wilson worked together closely last season, so it’s doubtful much will change. Dan Mullen did bring in Geoff Collins to serve as co-defensive coordinator to Wilson and also coach the Bulldogs' linebackers.
  • Lining up linebackers: The Bulldogs lost all three of their starting linebackers from last season, including their top two tacklers in Chris White and K.J. Wright. Emmanuel Gatling was the other starter, although he shared time with Cameron Lawrence at one of the outside spots. So while Lawrence might have first dibs on one of those three starting jobs this spring, the competition will be fierce. Redshirt freshmen Felando Bohanna and Christian Holmes are two to watch in the middle. Chris Hughes played some last season as a true freshman on the outside, and third-year sophomore Michael Hunt will also be in the mix for a starting job.
  • Relf’s supporting cast: Chris Relf enters his senior season as one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the SEC, and he’s also one of the league’s most improved players. The Bulldogs’ top threats in the running game return, but Relf will have several new guys he’ll be hooking up with in the passing game. Junior receiver Chad Bumphis has been working out and is expected back this spring after missing the Gator Bowl with a broken collarbone. The Bulldogs also redshirted several receivers last season they have high hopes for, including Malcolm Johnson, Robert Johnson and Jameon Lewis. Getting a healthy Marcus Green back at tight end will also make Relf's life easier.

Start of spring practice: March 28
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Lee to call plays: The last time Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt didn’t call his own plays was 2007 when David Lee called them during Nutt’s final season at Arkansas. Well, Lee has reunited with Nutt at Ole Miss for the 2011 season after coming over from the Miami Dolphins, and Nutt has again turned over the offensive play-calling duties to Lee in order to spend more time focusing on other areas of the team. Lee will build what the Rebels do offensively around an underrated stable of running backs, led by Brandon Bolden.
  • Quarterback questions: Jeremiah Masoli popped in at the last minute a year ago. But this time, it appears that the guy who separates himself this spring will be the Rebels’ quarterback for the season. Junior Nathan Stanley has the edge in experience. Randall Mackey is probably the most athletic, but will be limited this spring after undergoing knee surgery. Junior college signee Zack Stoudt is already enrolled and also eyeing the starting job, while West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti will be in the middle of the race as well if he receives a waiver from the NCAA and is allowed to play this coming season.
  • Building back the defense: After back-to-back seasons in 2008 and 2009 when Ole Miss’ defense was outstanding, Tyrone Nix’s unit came crashing down last season. More than anything, it’s a group that needs to regain its confidence this spring and play with that same attacking mentality that made the Rebels so effective on defense the previous two seasons. Linebacker D.T. Shackelford is a leader and the kind of guy you win with in this league, but Nix & Co. need to find a few more like him this spring, especially in the secondary.
For all of Ole Miss' struggles on defense, defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix was confident his unit could turn it around if the Rebels could just start creating some turnovers.

Well, they forced three in the first half, leading to all 21 points against Kentucky. One of those was an interception by cornerback Charles Sawyer, which was Ole Miss' first interception of the season. He returned it 38 yards to the 9, setting up Ole Miss' tying touchdown in the second half.

Hartline's pass was a lazy one that Sawyer read perfectly, but the Rebels' other two turnovers came on big hits.

Nix vowed that his defense would bounce back, and the Rebels are playing with the kind of purpose and intensity you're used to seeing from Nix's defenses.

Ole Miss goes down ... hard

September, 4, 2010
What had been an awful week for Ole Miss got a lot better when quarterback Jeremiah Masoli won his appeal Friday to be eligible this season.

And then on Saturday, the bottom fell out again.

Jacksonville State, an FCS school, shocked the Rebels 49-48 in double overtime. Jacksonville State could have kicked the PAT, which would have sent the game into a third overtime, but chose to go for the two-point conversion and the win.

When Jacksonville State converted on a short pass, Ole Miss nose tackle Jerrell Powe slammed his helmet to the turf.

It might as well have been the Rebels' season, too.

Losing to an FCS school at home is one thing. But the Rebels were leading 31-10 at the half, and people were leaving the stadium to get a head start on the post-game tailgating.

The most incredible thing about the loss, though, was how Ole Miss' defense could give up so many points. The Rebels have been outstanding the past two seasons defensively under Tyrone Nix. They were missing senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett, and Jacksonville State carved them apart in the second half.

Offensively, Houston Nutt elected to go with Masoli at quarterback down the stretch. That's after Nathan Stanley started the game and played well. Stanley threw three touchdown passes and wasn't intercepted, although he did lose a fumble.

The Rebels hurt themselves with three turnovers. Still, giving up 39 points after halftime -- to an FCS school -- is inexcusable.

Last week wasn't a fun time to be in Oxford. Next week will be even worse.

Ole Miss’ defense was so dominant Wednesday during practice that coach Houston Nutt said the offense couldn’t get a first down during the team work.

For Nutt, that’s a double-edged sword.

“I hope it’s the defense was that good. That’s what I’m hoping,” said Nutt, acknowledging that the offense has to get better.

Senior nose tackle Jerrell Powe can probably help his coach out with that quandary. Since before preseason practice began, Powe has been saying this defense has a chance to be special.

Based on what’s transpired this preseason, in particular the way junior college newcomer Wayne Dorsey has pushed to become a more complete player at end, this is shaping up to be perhaps the strongest Ole Miss defense yet under Nutt and defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix.

There are still a lot of new faces who will need to come through in the secondary, but Powe likes the makeup of this defense.

“I definitely think we can carry this team,” Powe said. “We’re going to be real special, and I’ve heard a lot of people comparing us to the 1993 group. It’s going to be on us to hold it down until the offense gets it going, and they will.”

That 1993 Ole Miss defense was plenty nasty, even though the Rebels finished just 6-5 that season. They allowed 142 points in 11 games (12.9 points per game) and didn’t give up more than 21 points in a game all season.

SEC post-spring power rankings

May, 3, 2010
Now that spring practice has come and gone, why not tweak the SEC power rankings?

The teams always look a little different coming out of the spring. New players emerge. Injuries, suspensions and dismissals occur, and coaches bemoan depth issues at key spots.

The top of the league remains unchanged. Alabama’s the best team in the SEC until proven otherwise. Florida’s the second-best team until proven otherwise.

Yes, both teams lost great players. But both teams also have immensely talented players waiting in the wings behind those players they lost.

After Alabama and Florida, it’s anybody’s guess. Having been to most of the spring camps the past two months, I can see how a case could be made for Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, LSU and South Carolina all to be ranked No. 3.

Here’s my best college try as we head into the summer:

1. Alabama: Don’t be fooled by how few starters return on defense. Defensive end Marcell Dareus and linebacker Dont’a Hightower are future first-round draft picks, and this program has recruited like crazy the past two years. The offense may be the best Alabama has put on the field in a long time. You can bet the Tide will be balanced, too. Having two backs the caliber of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson on the same roster tends to open up a few things for the offense.

2. Florida: Junior quarterback John Brantley certainly looks like the real thing. We’ll find out for sure this fall. How everybody plays around him on offense may be the most important component for the Gators. The schedule sets up nicely, meaning all of the new faces on defense will have a chance to build up some confidence before that Oct. 2 trip to Alabama.

3. Arkansas: The Hogs move up a spot from the pre-spring rankings. Coach Bobby Petrino is convinced that his defense will be improved and said the competition between the offense and defense this spring was the best it’s been. That’s saying something, too, when you consider how potent Arkansas is offensively. The Hogs are going to light up scoreboards in the fall.

4. LSU: There wasn’t that air of confidence surrounding the quarterback position coming out of the spring at LSU. Jordan Jefferson simply didn’t take the job and run with it like a lot of people around the program thought he would. The Tigers made more of a commitment to running the ball better this spring and will again be good on defense. But to be a 10-win team or better, Jefferson has to take his game to another level.

5. Auburn: Arkansas and Auburn find themselves in similar positions. Both need to improve on defense to have a legitimate shot of contending for the SEC championship. The Tigers are still facing a numbers problem on defense, although it’s not as severe as it was last season. They’re counting on several players from this signing class to come in and provide some depth. Quarterback Cameron Newton was one of the best acquisitions of the offseason. He’ll bring a different dimension to this offense.

6. Georgia: Even though the Bulldogs lost a few key players this spring, namely quarterback Zach Mettenberger and outside linebacker Montrez Robinson, they get the nod over South Carolina and move up to the sixth spot. Redshirt freshman Aaron Murray will be a first-year starter at quarterback, but he has 10 starters returning around him. Ultimately, it will be up to the defense to see if the Bulldogs can make a serious run at the Gators in the East.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks were ranked in the top half of the league in the pre-spring rankings. That’s before Steve Spurrier went after quarterback Stephen Garcia publicly. Maybe Garcia will respond and have a great year. The Gamecocks return 15 starters, and you know Ellis Johnson’s defense will be good again. But if Garcia goes the other way, Spurrier will head into the most anticipated season since he’s been in Columbia with a true freshman (Connor Shaw) as his quarterback.

8. Ole Miss: Tyrone Nix’s front seven on defense is what gives the Rebels the nod over their in-state rivals for the No. 8 spot. A defensive line led by Jerrell Powe and Kentrell Lockett should be one of the best in the league, and the Rebels’ linebackers are extremely underrated. It may be slow going for the offense until some guys grow up. The middle of the offensive line will be new, and somebody needs to emerge as the go-to playmaker.

9. Mississippi State: It’s tempting to move the Bulldogs even higher. After all, they did beat Ole Miss by two touchdowns when they met last November. Dan Mullen said he would be disappointed if Mississippi State’s not in a bowl game next postseason. The defensive line should be greatly improved, and it sounds like Mullen is comfortable with playing two quarterbacks. That Thursday night home game against Auburn the second week of the season will be huge for this club to generate some early momentum.

10. Tennessee: It’s strange seeing the Vols this far down in any kind of ranking of SEC teams, but that’s what happens when your roster is gutted the way it has been the past couple of years and you’re on your third head coach in a little more than 14 months. Even getting to .500 next season will be a challenge for the Vols, who will have five new starters on the offensive line, a first-year starter at quarterback and no depth at defensive tackle.

11. Kentucky: The Wildcats have thrived on being picked low the past two years and then proving everybody wrong. Only four other teams in the SEC have been to bowl games each of the past four years. The problem heading into the 2010 season is that they lost so many key defensive players from those teams. Quarterback Mike Hartline’s return from a knee injury should help the passing game, which was non-existent after he went down last season.

12. Vanderbilt: The offense can’t be any worse than it was a year ago, right? Those who saw the offense go 13 straight possessions before finding the end zone in the Black and Gold spring scrimmage may beg to disagree. Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson has shuffled some responsibilities on his offensive staff, and even though the Commodores will again be salty on defense, it’s hard to move them out of the cellar until they prove they’re going to be able to score points in this league.

SEC pre-spring power rankings

February, 10, 2010
Wasn’t it just yesterday that Alabama’s Nick Saban was raising that crystal trophy out in California?

It sure seems so, but the start of spring practice in the SEC is only two weeks away. LSU cranks it up on Feb. 25, which means it’s time for the pre-spring power rankings.

There’s not much drama as to who’s No. 1. The Crimson Tide haven’t lost a regular-season game since 2007 and are coming off their first national championship in 17 years.

Even with nine starters departing on defense, they still head into the spring as the clear-cut favorite in the SEC.

Here’s a look at the entire poll:

1. Alabama: We’ll find out early about Alabama. The Crimson Tide face Penn State the second week of the season in Tuscaloosa. Losing nine starters on defense will be a challenge to overcome. But make no mistake. There's no shortage of defensive talent in Alabama’s program. New faces will emerge, and Nick Saban is one of the best in business when it comes to developing players. The offense should be even better than it was a year ago. How good will the Mark Ingram-Trent Richardson tandem be next season? Repeating as SEC champions isn't easy. It hasn't been done since Tennessee did it in 1997 and 1998.

2. Florida: The Gators get the prize for losing the most talent in the SEC when you consider all the juniors leaving early for the NFL. John Brantley finally gets his shot at quarterback and right away will be one of the better passers in the league. How successful he is in his first season will depend largely on the players around him. Tim Tebow won’t be around anymore to convert all the key third downs. Defensively, Florida will again be strong. There’s a ton of untapped talent on that side of the ball in the program. The Gators won’t win 13 games again, but 10 or 11 isn’t out of the question.

3. LSU: Having LSU this high may be a bit of a gamble. But when you look at the talent on the Tigers’ roster, both offensively and defensively, they’re still a top 3 team. For now. Here’s betting that quarterback Jordan Jefferson breaks out and has a much more productive junior season. And somehow, the Tigers have to get Russell Shepard involved in the offense. John Chavis’ defense played well enough to win the West last season and will give the Tigers a chance in every game again next season. It’s a critical year for Les Miles. He needs to make a run at another title and finish strongly.

4. Arkansas: Watch out for the Hogs in 2010. And really watch out for them if some of the younger players on defense grow up and play more consistently. Arkansas still isn’t going to be able to win every game 41-38. But with quarterback Ryan Mallett returning along with his arsenal of playmakers, the Hogs should be the most explosive offense in the league. Mallett will also be better equipped to operate against some of the better defenses now that he’s been through the league one time.

5. Auburn: One of the biggest pickups in the offseason for any team in the SEC was the Tigers signing junior college quarterback Cameron Newton. He looks like a perfect fit in Gus Malzahn’s offense. Look for the Tigers to play at an even faster pace offensively next season. The real trick will be picking up the pace defensively and not giving up as many points. If some of the newcomers in this highly touted signing class can help on defense, Auburn has a chance to make a run at nine or 10 wins in 2010.

6. South Carolina: If ever the Gamecocks were going to make a serious push to be in Atlanta for the SEC championship game, this may be the year. They return many of their key players on offense and defense, and Stephen Garcia all of a sudden looks like a seasoned quarterback. Ellis Johnson’s defense will be up to the task, and South Carolina gets Georgia in Columbia next season in the second week. It’s all going to come down to whether or not the Gamecocks can finally figure it out in the offensive line. So far, they haven't.

7. Georgia: The Bulldogs will sport several new looks in 2010. They have a new defensive coordinator in Todd Grantham, who’s implementing a new 3-4 defense. They will also have a new quarterback. Redshirt freshmen Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger are expected to battle it out for the starting job this spring. The Bulldogs are talented enough to make some noise in the East. The Washaun Ealey-A.J. Green combo on offense should be something to see. It remains to be seen, though, if they can improve enough on defense to be a factor.

8. Ole Miss: The Rebels loom as the team most likely to take the biggest tumble next season. They were a senior-heavy team a year ago, and most of their playmakers on offense and defense are gone. More than ever, Tyrone Nix’s defense is going to have to carry Ole Miss in 2010. The Rebels should again be strong up front defensively with Kentrell Lockett and Jerrell Powe returning. But the offense will include new faces across the board, including a new starter at quarterback.

9. Tennessee: New coach Derek Dooley may not be ready to call it a rebuilding job, but that’s what he faces in Knoxville. The Vols are frighteningly thin on the offensive line and at defensive tackle, and that’s not a good combination in the SEC. They will also have a new starter at quarterback, not to mention a killer schedule. Tennessee has lost 13 games in the last two seasons. That total could easily approach 20 following next season. In other words, it's not going to be a quick fix for Dooley.

10. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs appear poised to make a move under Dan Mullen after coming close to being bowl eligible a year ago. The young talent in this program is impressive, headed up by Chad Bumphis, Johnthan Banks and Fletcher Cox. Pernell McPhee returns as one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the league, but the real question for Mississippi State is on offense. Replacing Anthony Dixon won’t be easy. Is redshirt freshman Tyler Russell ready to win the starting quarterback job?

11. Kentucky: The Joker Phillips era begins with a lot of question marks on defense. The Wildcats lost a ton of good defensive football players from last season, including Corey Peters, Micah Johnson, Sam Maxwell and Trevard Lindley. The good news is that Randall Cobb is back on offense (and special teams), and Phillips can build around him offensively. Getting back to a bowl game for a fifth straight year may be a tall order for the Wildcats.

12. Vanderbilt: Quarterback Larry Smith will have some competition this spring in the form of junior college newcomer Jordan Rodgers, the younger brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Commodores can’t possibly have as many injuries as they had a year ago, which means they’re a solid bet to improve on their 2-10 season. They should again be good on defense. It just gets down to whether or not they can generate any type of passing game.

Ole Miss' Nix gets promotion

January, 22, 2010
One of the best decisions Houston Nutt has made since taking the Ole Miss job is promoting defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix to assistant head coach.

[+] EnlargeTyrone Nix
Albert Pena Southcreek Sports/Icon SMIOle Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix will be getting a new title and a pay raise.
Nix will also get a bump in salary that will take him to the $400,000 range annually, if not above. He deserves every bit of that bump and maybe more.

The Rebels have been very good on defense the last two seasons, and Nix's attacking style is a big reason Ole Miss is coming off back-to-back nine-win seasons for the first time since the early 1960s.

Ole Miss has 208 tackles for loss in the last two seasons, which is more than any other team in the country during that span.

The Rebels had 96 this season, which led the SEC in terms of tackles for loss per game. They've also recorded 75 sacks over the last two seasons, which is more than anybody in the SEC during that span.

It's the reason Florida coach Urban Meyer came after Nix when Charlie Strong took the Louisville head job and the reason other schools will keep coming after Nix, who shouldn't have to wait too much longer before he gets a shot at a head-coaching job.

With Ole Miss taking care of Nix, another defensive coordinator in the SEC who's about to see his deal sweetened significantly is South Carolina's Ellis Johnson. And deservedly so. Johnson's defense has been the backbone of South Carolina's team the last two seasons. He already holds the title of assistant head coach for the defense.

When it's all said and done, you're going to have at least half the defensive coordinators in the SEC making $400,000 or more next season.

It goes without saying that they pay top dollar for quality defense in this league.

AT&T Cotton Bowl preview

January, 1, 2010
Breaking down the AT&T Cotton Bowl on Saturday (FOX, 2 p.m. ET) between Oklahoma State (9-3) and Ole Miss (8-4):

WHO TO WATCH: If they awarded the Heisman Trophy based on the last half of the season, Ole Miss senior running back Dexter McCluster might have found himself in New York City for the awards ceremony. He was that good down the stretch and rushed for 821 yards in his last five SEC games. He also has a chance to become the first player in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards and have 500 receiving yards in the same season. He currently sits at 985 rushing yards and 475 receiving yards. Despite weighing just 170 pounds, McCluster has been amazingly durable this season. And when he gets loose in the open field, he’s truly a treat to watch.

WHAT TO WATCH: What version of Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead do we see in this game? The Rebels hope it’s the version of Snead they saw in last season’s Cotton Bowl. It was a disappointing season for Snead, who threw an SEC-high 17 interceptions. Ole Miss needs him to take care of the ball in this game, and he also needs to have some success in hitting some passes downfield to keep Oklahoma State from loading up against McCluster and the running game.

WHY TO WATCH: Both of these teams started the season ranked in the Top 10, and had visions of making some noise on the national scene. As it turned out, neither team even made it to its respective conference championship game. So this is a chance for the Rebels and Cowboys to put a positive face on the season. For Ole Miss, it would be a second straight nine-win season. The last time the Rebels won nine or more games in back-to-back seasons was 1961 and 1962.

PREDICTION: The sour taste of that 41-27 loss to Mississippi State on the final weekend of the regular season has lingered for Ole Miss. This is a team that’s looked really good at times and really average at times. In the end, look for Tyrone Nix’s defense to bounce back from that poor outing in Starkville and take the Cowboys out of their game. Ole Miss 30, Oklahoma State 21.
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AT&T Cotton Bowl preview

January, 1, 2010
Oklahoma State will be looking for its first bowl victory since 2007 as it tries to upset Mississippi in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Here’s a brief primer.

WHO TO WATCH: Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State

Hunter led the Big 12 in rushing last season, but has struggled with a foot injury in 2009, missing five games and never really recovering the form that enabled him to gain 1,555 yards last season. Keith Toston took over as Oklahoma State’s featured running threat and raced for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns. But the Cowboys have missed a breakaway element in their running game all season. Hunter returned to action late in the regular season, but has looked reluctant to plant and cut the way he did last season. But after his Cotton Bowl practices, he appears to be finally rounding into form. His return against Mississippi should boost the productivity of the Cowboys’ offense and perhaps give him a jump-start for the 2010 season.

WHAT TO WATCH: Can the Cowboys protect Zac Robinson from theRebels’ lethal pass rush?

Oklahoma State’s offensive line has struggled protecting Robinson at times this season, ranking only ninth in the Big 12 in fewest sacks allowed. Rebels’ defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix has developed a productive defense that led the Southeastern Conference and had five different players with at least five sacks during the season, keyed by Marcus Tillman and Emmanuel Stephens with 5.5 sacks apiece. The biggest reason the Rebels have been successful with their pass rush is because their secondary has held up well this season. And with OSU consensus All-American tackle Russell Okung’s status iffy with a tweaked knee, it could be more difficult for the Cowboys to withstand the Rebels’ pressure. OSU must do a better job of protecting their quarterback than late in the season when Robinson’s performance dipped as he was hampered with injuries.

WHY WATCH: The coaching matchup between two former OSU quarterbacks

The association between Mississippi coach Houston Nutt and OSU coach Mike Gundy goes back a long way. Nutt was an OSU quarterback in 1979-80 and Gundy played at the position for the Cowboys from 1986 to 1989. During Gundy’s playing stint, Nutt served as the Cowboys’ wide receivers coach. They have remained close over the years. It will be interesting to see how teacher and pupil compete in the game -- and how they interact after it.

PREDICTION: Both OSU and Mississippi entered the season with a lot of preseason expectations, but struggled to match that hype after midseason slumps. Both teams like to feature their running backs as the Rebels’ Dexter McCluster will be matched against the Cowboys’ versatile duo of Toston and Hunter. Veteran OSU defensive coordinator Bill Young has had nearly a month to cook up a scheme to contain McCluster. But the Cowboys need to find a way to muster enough plays on offense to enable them to win. That’s easier said than done as the Rebels should find a way to persevere late in the game. Prediction: Mississippi 24, Oklahoma State 21.