Friday, December 16, 2011
Season report card: Ole Miss
By ESPN.com staff
We kick off our season report cards today with the Ole Miss Rebels, one of three SEC teams that didn't qualify for a bowl game. Instead of the postseason, Ole Miss, Kentucky and Tennessee get summer school.
Nothing went as planned for Ole Miss offensively this season. The Rebels had hoped to lean on their offensive line and pound away in the running game, but senior running back Brandon Bolden broke his foot in the opener. An even bigger problem was the quarterback position. Barry Brunetti opened the season as the starter and was replaced in the first game by Zack Stoudt, who was more of a pocket passer. Then it was Randall Mackey, who showed a few flashes before he was suspended at the end of the season. The three quarterbacks combined to throw nine touchdown passes and 13 interceptions, and the Rebels averaged just 16.1 points per game. It was even worse in the eight SEC games, as Ole Miss averaged just 11.6 points per game. The bright spots were true freshmen receivers Donte Moncrief and Nickolas Brassell. Moncrief led the team with 31 catches, including four touchdowns, while Brassell was second with 24 catches, including two touchdowns. There's some young talent returning, but the bottom line is that Ole Miss was held to a single offensive touchdown (or less) in six of its eight SEC games this season. In this league, that's a 2-10 season waiting to happen.
Losing top linebacker and team leader D.T. Shackelford in the spring to a knee injury was a killer for the Rebels. Not only did it hurt them on defense, but it was a huge blow in the locker room. More injuries followed during the season, and defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix was left with a frighteningly young and inexperienced defense. The Rebels simply wore down after starting the season with an excellent defensive effort against BYU in a bitter 14-13 loss at home. Ole Miss finished last in the SEC in scoring defense and total defense. The Rebels gave up an average of 32.1 points per game, but were hung out to dry more times than not by an offense that couldn't score points and couldn't move the ball. Most of the Rebels' best players on defense were their youngest players. Sophomore cornerback Charles Sawyer had a team-leading four interceptions and was second on the team with 70 tackles. True freshman linebacker Serderius Bryant was an SEC all-freshman selection and tied for fourth with 61 tackles. Redshirt freshman linebacker Ralph Williams and true freshman linebacker C.J. Johnson also played key roles. Where the Rebels really struggled was up front. They had an SEC-low 13 sacks and simply couldn't stop anybody from running the ball, finishing 111th nationally in rushing defense and giving up 224.9 yards per game on the ground.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
If not for the kicking game, it could have been even worse for the Rebels. They had two different players return punts for touchdowns (Jeff Scott and Brassell) and finished second in the league in kickoff coverage. What's more, they didn't give up a touchdown on a kickoff return or punt return. Punter Tyler Campbell is lucky his leg didn't fall off during the season. He punted it 72 times, but averaged 43.6 yards per kick and had 28 downed inside the 20. Place-kicker Bryson Rose was 9-of-11 on field goals. One of his two misses was from 52 yards.
In 14 seasons as a head coach in the SEC, Houston Nutt has certainly had his share of success. It's fair to say, though, that he won't look back on either of his final two seasons with much fondness. The Ole Miss program hit bottom this season, and Nutt was fired two days after the loss to Kentucky on Nov. 5. While Nutt deserves credit for leading the Rebels to back-to-back nine-win seasons and Cotton Bowl victories his first two years on the job, he simply didn't recruit well enough and had too many misses on the recruiting trail those first couple of years to make it long term in Oxford. Several player suspensions only made it worse this season, and the Rebels weren't a very disciplined team. They were 11th in the league in penalty yards and 11th in turnover margin. Hugh Freeze takes over an Ole Miss program that has lost 14 straight SEC games. He does inherit some promising young talent, but the climb in the Western Division will be a steep one.