- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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2011 overall record: 2-10
2011 conference record: 0-8
Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 2
2011 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Jeff Scott* (529 yards)
Passing: Randall Mackey* (1,112 yards)
Receiving: Donte Moncrief* (454 yards)
Tackles: Mike Marry* (81)
Sacks: Wayne Dorsey (3)
Interceptions: Charles Sawyer* (4)
1. Secondary strength: With questions swirling surrounding Nickolas Brassell’s eligibility, some of the best news this spring for the Rebels centered around the play of cornerbacks Dehendret Collins and Wesley Pendleton. They were junior college teammates and look like they will be manning the starting corner positions this fall for Ole Miss. Add junior safety Charles Sawyer to the mix, and it’s a unit that should be much improved, especially if Brassell makes it academically and heralded true freshman Trae Elston is everything the Rebels think he is.
2. Kicking and screaming: It’s hard to find a team in the SEC that kicks it much better than the Rebels do with their combination of senior place-kicker Bryson Rose and senior punter Tyler Campbell. Rose was 9-of-11 on field goals last season and made 17 straight field goal attempts between 2010 and 2011, which was one shy of the SEC record. Campbell averaged 43.6 yards per punt and was second in the league with 28 punts downed inside the 20-yard line.
3. Freezing them out: First-year Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze spent much of the spring and offseason putting his stamp on the program. Not only do the Rebels have a new spread offense, but several of the players said there’s a new mindset, specifically when it comes to discipline and accountability. The players split into accountability groups, and they policed themselves. If one member of that group did something wrong or ran astray, they all were punished. Freeze exited the spring feeling as if everyone were on the same page in terms of knowing what the expectations were.
1. Making the grade: Junior running back Jeff Scott and Brassell are on the border academically and still have work to do to be eligible. Both players played in the spring game, but missed some practice time. The Rebels are in need of big-play guys on offense. Scott provides that with his speed. Brassell will play cornerback, but the Rebels also plan to use him situationally on offense. Tobias Singleton has moved from receiver to running back. If Scott and Brassell aren’t around this fall, that’s going to put a lot of pressure on Singleton in the backfield.
2. Shackelford’s health: The Rebels could desperately use D.T. Shackelford’s production and leadership on defense in 2012, but there’s no guarantee that he will be fully recovered from a second knee surgery this past March. He missed all of last season after tearing his ACL two springs ago. His knee didn’t respond to that first surgery, and he had to undergo a second procedure just prior to the start of this spring practice. Shackelford, a junior linebacker, led the Rebels with five sacks in 2010. More importantly, he’s the kind of player everybody rallies around. Getting him back would be huge for the Rebels.
3. Offensive line development: It doesn’t matter who’s playing quarterback or who’s running the ball if the offensive line doesn’t jell and play with more consistency than it did a year ago. The anchor is junior center Evan Swindall, but the Rebels need guys such as senior A.J. Hawkins and junior Emmanuel McCray to keep progressing. They moved some players around this spring up front, and several of them have starting experience. But they were still adjusting to the new spread offense, so finding the right combination will be critical in the fall.