Friday, August 3, 2012
Opening preseason camp: Ole Miss
By Chris Low
Schedule: The Rebels’ first practice is Saturday at 10:45 a.m. ET. The first day in pads is scheduled for next Wednesday. Ole Miss opens the season on Sept. 1 against Central Arkansas in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Kickoff is 7 p.m. ET, and the game will be televised on a pay-per-view basis and also shown on ESPN3.
Returning starters: Seven on offense, six on defense and the place-kicker, punter and top return man on special teams.
Star power: Junior Mike Marry is the returning starter at middle linebacker. He led the team with 81 total tackles and five tackles for loss last season.
New faces: Several junior college newcomers could wind up with starting jobs this fall. Among them are quarterback Bo Wallace, offensive tackle Pierce Burton and cornerback Dehendret Collins. All three were on campus for spring practice. The Rebels are thin at running back behind junior Jeff Scott, and that’s where they hope true freshmen I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton will be able to help. In the secondary, true freshman Trae Elston comes in as one of the top-rated safety prospects in the country. Another highly-rated true freshman, defensive end, Channing Ward, could help fill a big void on the Rebels’ defensive line.
Don’t forget about: Junior linebacker D.T. Shackelford is trying to make it back from two knee surgeries after not playing at all last season. He can play outside linebacker and also line up as a defensive end on passing downs. Shackelford is one of the strongest leaders on the team, and getting him back on the field this fall would pay huge dividends for the Rebels.
Big shoes to fill: The Rebels lost both of their starting tackles on offense. Between them, Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie started in 58 straight games. Sowell graduated, and Massie left early for the NFL draft. Junior Emmanuel McCray steps in at left tackle and Burton at right tackle. Knee injuries cost McCray the entire 2011 season, but he was one of the Rebels’ most pleasant surprises in the spring and latched onto the left tackle job. Burton started his career as a defensive lineman, but developed into a top-notch offensive tackle at City College of San Francisco. Ole Miss beat Florida to get him.
Key battle: First-year coach Hugh Freeze wasn’t ready to name a starting quarterback coming out of the spring and said the battle between Wallace and junior Barry Brunetti could go well into preseason camp and maybe into the first few weeks of the season. Wallace has the bigger arm and is a polished pocket passer, while Brunetti is comfortable throwing on the move and seemed to thrive in Freeze’s fast-paced, spread system this spring.
Rising star: Some might suggest that sophomore Donte Moncrief is already the star of this team. He led Ole Miss in receiving as a true freshman last season with 31 catches for 454 yards and four touchdowns. He averaged 14.6 yards per catch. The best news for the Rebels is that Moncrief is only going to get better, especially if Ole Miss can stabilize its play at quarterback.
Bottom line: The Rebels have lost 14 straight SEC games. Only once last season did they play an SEC opponent inside double digits. It’s going to be a steep climb for Freeze, especially in the Western Division where he’s dealing with three top-10 teams nationally. He’s gotten off to a nice start on the recruiting trail, and that’s what it’s going to take. A big part of Houston Nutt’s undoing at Ole Miss can be traced to his first couple of years when he missed more than he hit on the recruiting front. Freeze has an impressive nucleus of young talent to build around -- C.J. Johnson, Serderius Bryant, Moncrief, Wallace, Elston and Ward -- but it’s going to take two more solid recruiting classes to catch up with the teams he has to beat in the West. The big thing this program needs is some confidence. The Rebels ended last season on a seven-game losing streak. They need to play well in those first two games against Central Arkansas and UTEP and then go into that Texas game at home with some real momentum. Getting to a bowl game might be a stretch in Freeze’s debut season, but the Rebels are a united bunch right now and looking forward to taking their shot with a fresh approach.