SEC: D.T. Shackelford

SEC's lunchtime links

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
Here we are at the end of another week, but thankfully a small taste of football is temporarily returning.

Let's take a look around the SEC as some schools have already opened spring practice and some are preparing for their first workout.
Schedule: The Rebels opened practice Tuesday evening. Friday and Saturday practices will be open to the public throughout the spring, beginning with a morning workout on March 7. Other open practices include March 21, March 28, March 29, April 4 and the Grove Bowl on April 5 at 1 p.m. ET inside Vaught-Hemmingway Stadium.

What's new: Yet again, coach Hugh Freeze was able to keep his staff intact. The expectations, however, are a bit higher in Year 3 of the Freeze era in Oxford.

[+] EnlargeHugh Freeze
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesExpectations are higher in Year 3 for Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss.
On the move: Defensive end Channing Ward will work at tight end for the Rebels this spring. Sophomore running back Kailo Moore is moving from running back to cornerback. Defensive tackle Carlton Martin is moving to offensive guard. Cornerbacks Quintavius Burdette and Quadarias Mireles are moving to slot receiver. Defensive back Chief Brown will work at the hybrid husky spot. D.T. Shackelford, who played both linebacker and defensive end last year, is moving to middle linebacker and Laquon Treadwell is moving from inside receiver to the outside spot.

On the mend: Offensive lineman Aaron Morris, who is coming off of a torn ACL he suffered last season, will be limited this spring. Fellow offensive lineman Christian Morris is out for the spring after undergoing surgery to repair an injured Achilles. Defensive tackle Woodrow Hamilton is out for the spring after breaking his foot, while offensive tackle Austin Golson will be limited after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery.

New faces: The Rebels welcomed in six early enrollees this year. Two are true freshman: Safety C.J. Hampton and quarterback Kendrick Doss. Two are also junior college transfers: Athlete Jeremy Liggins and linebacker Christian Russell. Defensive end Marquis Haynes is coming over from prep school and Christian Morris transferred from UCLA.

Question marks: Outside of rising sophomore Laremy Tunsil, who is the unquestioned starter at left tackle, the offensive line has plenty of mystery. Coaches will be looking for bodies and answers this spring after losing three senior starters. Not having Aaron Morris or Christian Morris, who could push for a starting job this fall, at full strength certainly hurts. Redshirt junior Justin Bell started all 13 games last year (seven at right guard, six at left guard), which will add stability inside with Aaron Morris limited. Mr. Reliable at center, Evan Swindall, is gone too, leaving a big hole there. The Rebels are also looking for a backup to quarterback Bo Wallace with Barry Brunetti gone. Redshirt freshmen DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan will challenge Ross. Liggins could also get some work at quarterback. With the graduation of Mike Marry and the arrests/suspensions of Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant, the Rebels now have some holes at linebacker this spring.

Key battle: The loss of Swindall, who made 35 career starts with the Rebels, is going to hurt. They will mainly work with Bell, redshirt sophomore Robert Conyers and junior Ben Still, who played in five games last year and served as Swindall's backup, at center. Conyers also played in five games last year and has the ability to line up at both center and tackle.

Breaking out: With top-flight wide receiver Donte Moncrief gone, the Rebels will turn to Treadwell to be the new go-to for Wallace. He'll need some help, and Freeze thinks that rising senior Vince Sanders could be that guy. Overshadowed a bit last year, Sanders caught 21 passes for 325 yards and a touchdown. Injuries limited him to playing in nine games, but he has the ability to be a valuable playmaker this season. He has good size and speed to make plays down the field and over the middle. Remember, he registered more than 500 yards and had four touchdowns in 2012. Also, keep an eye on rising sophomore cornerback Derrick Jones, who played in nine games and made three starts last year. He'll be in a battle for one of the corner spots this spring and could be a big-time player for the Rebels.

Don't forget about: Redshirt junior defensive end C.J. Johnson only played in four games last year before undergoing season-ending ankle surgery. Having him back on the field should give the Rebels a big lift off the edge, especially when it comes to the pass rush. That consistent outside threat was lacking after Johnson went down, resulting in Ole Miss finishing the season tied for 12th in the SEC with just 19 sacks after ranking second with 38 in 2012. That year, Johnson led the Rebels with 6.5 sacks. He's not just extremely important on the field; he's a top leader in the locker room.

All eyes on: Wallace could enter the 2014 season as the SEC's top quarterback. Now, some people might scoff at such a statement, but the league lost a great group of QBs, and Wallace has shown good flashes here and there. He has all the tools to be a top player in this league, but he has to work on his decision making. He has a knack for rushing throws and being careless with the ball. Heading into his final year and spring with the Rebels, it's time for Wallace to take that final step as this team's quarterback. He has to conquer the mental part of his game this spring.

SEC lunchtime links

January, 13, 2014
Jan 13
Football season is nearly over, but the news never stops in SEC country – especially with all of the NFL draft announcements, coaching changes and recruiting news churning this week.

It wasn’t pretty, but Ole Miss did just enough to knock off Georgia Tech and win the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl 25-17. With the win, the Rebels have now won 10 of their past 11 bowl games.

Here’s how it went down:

It was over when: Mike Hilton sealed the victory with an interception in the final minute, but the key play came the drive before when Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace connected with Laquon Treadwell for 27 yards on third-and-13. It allowed the Rebels to run an extra two minutes off the clock and made a Georgia Tech comeback nearly impossible. The freshman wide receiver finished with five catches for 51 yards, but none bigger than that third-down grab.

Game ball goes to: Wallace. The Ole Miss signal-caller played maybe his worst game as a Rebel in an overtime loss to Mississippi State in the regular-season finale, but he redeemed himself with an impressive performance against Georgia Tech on Monday. The junior went 22-of-32 for 256 yards and a touchdown, and also rushed 13 times for 86 yards and two touchdowns. It was a successful homecoming for the Tennessee native, who finished the season on a high note.

Unsung hero: Ole Miss linebacker D.T. Shackelford. The senior, who missed the 2011 and 2012 seasons due to ACL tears, might not have gotten the credit he deserved this season, but he was all over the field for the Rebels on Monday. Down the stretch, he blew up the Yellow Jackets' reverse pass attempt that ultimately led to a safety, and he was the one to apply pressure on the quarterback which forced the game-clinching interception.

Stat of the game: Georgia Tech rushed for 92 yards in the first quarter, including 64 yards on the opening drive. Ole Miss held the Yellow Jackets to just 59 yards on 33 carries the rest of the way. The return of freshman star Robert Nkemdiche and safety Cody Prewitt in the second quarter was huge (both were suspended for the first quarter; Prewitt later left due to injury), but the whole defense stepped up, stopped the triple-option attack and carried the Rebels to victory.

What we learned: Ole Miss fell short of its goals this season, but with a victory in the bowl game, the Rebels can take some momentum with them into the offseason. This is clearly a team on the rise, and it’s not far from competing in the SEC West with the likes of Alabama and Auburn. As for Georgia Tech, it’s time to start wondering if the Yellow Jackets have reached their ceiling under coach Paul Johnson. They will lose 11 senior starters on both sides of the ball, and all they have to show for it is a 7-6 season with a loss in the bowl game.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Music City Bowl, click here.

OXFORD, Miss. -- Even though Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze isn’t one to make excuses, he had plenty of room to do so this week. The Rebels, who had lost three consecutive games, were without five starters on defense and the team’s leading rusher when they hosted No. 6 LSU on Saturday.

Turns out Freeze and the Rebels didn’t need any excuses as they stunned the Tigers, 27-24.

“I couldn’t be more proud of that staff and those kids to go through what they’ve been through, with the injuries and the outside world having their opinion of things,” Freeze said. “In the back of your mind, you always wonder as a coach if you can get a team ready to do those things like this when you’re shorthanded and coming off an extremely disappointing loss.”

The Rebels were in a similar situation last week when Texas A&M came to town. The game was tied with three minutes left, and it was up to quarterback Bo Wallace and the offense to drive down the field and win the game. Instead, they went three-and-out, punted the ball and watched as the Aggies drove down and kicked the game-winning field goal.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Ritter
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsAndrew Ritter drilled a 41-yard, game-winning field goal with 2 seconds remaining that gave the short-handed Rebels a stunning win over LSU.
“For A&M to beat us the way they did, I wasn’t letting that happen to us again,” Wallace said. “Ja-Mes [Logan] made a huge catch in the same situation that he had last week. He took a shot and hung onto it. Everybody just came together and fought hard on that last drive.”

It was Ole Miss who kicked the game-winning field goal this week, but it wouldn’t have happened had it not been for a number of players who stepped up when called upon.

The defense lost four starters due to injury against Texas A&M, and Freeze told his team Friday that starting cornerback Senquez Golson would be suspended for the visit from LSU. Four more Rebels defenders went down during Saturday's game, and yet, they forced three turnovers in the first half and held on for the upset.

“I think it was a God thing,” defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. “We sat in there on Sunday and said, ‘We got 14 players, not starters, 14 players for seven spots between the defensive line and the linebackers. We tried to make D.T. [Shackelford] do two different things, and he was able to do that. Fortunately, Tony Conner made a big difference because we were able to teach him some linebacker stuff. The kids are warriors. We needed that for our program.”

On offense, running backs Jaylen Walton and I'Tavius Mathers more than made up the absence of starter Jeff Scott. Walton finished with 106 yards rushing and two touchdowns while Mathers added 51 yards on 12 carries.

“We ran the football against a really good defense,” Freeze said. “Our offensive line played against a good defensive front. I have great confidence in Jaylen and I’Tavius. Jaylen has quick acceleration. He did really well tonight and protected the ball.”

It was a crushing loss for Les Miles and his LSU team, who lost any chance they had to play in the BCS National Championship, but the victory shouldn’t be understated for Ole Miss. The Rebels were down, but they showed they’re not out.

“We really needed a win,” Walton said. “We came close last week where we should’ve won, but this week, we got the W and now we can keep moving forward with wins.”
Before you can even finish uttering the words "fourth quarter" together, Ole Miss linebacker D.T. Shackelford cuts you off to convey the feelings that have haunted the Rebels for the last year.

Hugh Freeze
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsThe fourth quarter wasn't kind to Hugh Freeze's Rebels in 2012. Will that change this season?
"Finishing, finishing, finishing," Shackelford said. "No doubt we have the talent, we just have to finish it."

His words are deafening around Ole Miss' football complex. For all the good that came out of Hugh Freeze's first season as the Rebels' head coach, there was a lot of bad in the fourth quarter. A 7-6 season was nice, but there were at least two more victories there if not for fourth-quarter stumbles.

The Rebels were outscored 109-92 in fourth quarters in 2012. Ole Miss was outscored in the final frame in all six losses, while outscoring opponents in the fourth in four of its seven wins.

But where they felt the sting the most was in fourth quarters against LSU, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. Ole Miss blew a 10-point lead to the Aggies with help from a failed fourth-and-1 late and an 88-yard A&M touchdown drive. LSU went back-and-forth, but the Rebels were outscored 21-7 in the fourth. But Vanderbilt hurt the most, as the Rebels lost a 23-6 third-quarter lead.

"If you go watch the tape and you go look at the stat sheet and everything, you're gonna say, 'You know what? I think I'd pick that Ole Miss won these three games,'" Freeze said, whose team out-gained LSU and Vandy in both losses.

Instead, they went 0-3 and were left with three too many "what ifs."

The Rebels are looking to avoid the "what ifs" in 2013. Youth, inexperience and depth issues contributed to some of Ole Miss' fourth-quarter follies, Shackelford said, but the Rebels' staff will take preparing for the fourth quarter a step further this season.

Strength coach Paul Jackson made life for players a living hell during the offseason. Depth issues remain so making players more physically fit for the fourth quarter became a top priority during training season.

So what did the Rebels endure? A ton of short sprints, shuttles (suicide runs), 100-yard sprints and fast-paced, fast-twitch workouts. When breaks finally came, they were short. Twenty-to-25 seconds for sprints, while fast-twitch workouts went to exhaustion.

Linebacker Mike Marry said the toughest conditioning drill was the 90-yard suicide shuttles, while receiver Donte Moncrief dreaded the 100-yard sprints. For those, skill players had to make it to the end zone in at least 13 seconds, linebackers had 15 seconds and linemen had 17 seconds. Players did 10 with 20-second breaks.

"Doing those, you can look in someone's face and say he's giving it everything he's got," Moncrief said.

Conditioning was brutal, but players agree that it was worth it. This team seemed drained in fourth quarters in 2012, especially in those three crushing losses.

Tonight's opponent, Vandy, punched the Rebels in the jaw at home last season by ending last year's game on a 21-3 run after trailing by 17 in the third quarter. It started with a 52-yard third-quarter touchdown catch by Jordan Matthews and ended with a 26-yard touchdown reception by Chris Boyd with 52 seconds remaining.

Even though Ole Miss out-gained the Commodores 145-101 in the fourth and 249-239 in the second half, the Rebels mustered just 10 second-half points and went 4-for-10 on third down, including a failed third-and-goal in the fourth that led to a field goal.

"We gotta be able to last throughout the game because it's a brutal conference," defensive line coach Chris Kiffin said.

The Rebels hope their bodies come through in the fourth, but they're also counting on their minds. Those fourth-quarter wounds are still fresh, but that pain serves as a motivator.

"I don't like to lose, but in a way, losing some of those close games is going to help this program in the future," Marry said. "It lets the players see that you have to give it your all each and every play. Even when you're up, you can't relax because the other team can always bounce back."
We have more watch lists out, as the Butkus and the Rotary Lombardi awards announced their preseason players for the 2013 season Monday.

The Butkus Award is given annually to the nation's top linebacker, while the Lombardi Award goes to "down linemen, end-to-end, either on offense or defense, who set up no farther than 10 yards to the left or right of the ball, or linebackers who set up no farther than five yards deep from the line of scrimmage."

The SEC put nine on the Butkus Award watch list, while 17 made the Lombardi Award watch list.

Here are the Butkus members:
Here are the Lombardi members:
In order to make a stand in the SEC, you have to have a strong front seven. It starts with a stout defensive line, but don't forget about those cats behind that front line.

Linebackers need love, too:

1. Alabama: For starters, "Linebacker U" will enter the 2013 season with three linebackers -- C.J. Mosley, Adrian Hubbard and Trey DePriest -- who started 10 or more games last season. Then there's Xzavier Dickson, who started seven games at the rush-end "Jack" position. All four played in every game last year, making play after play. Mosley was considered one of the nation's best linebackers and could have opted for the NFL early. He'll get even more time with Nico Johnson gone. Hubbard is the team's top pass-rusher, DePriest has transformed into a top linebacker prospect in next year's NFL draft and Dickson is versatile enough to play linebacker and on the line. There is also a ton of young talent to watch, starting with sophomore Denzel Devall, who could really break out.

[+] EnlargeLamin Barrow
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLamin Barrow should replace some of the production the Tigers lost when Kevin Minter moved on to the NFL.
2. LSU: Kevin Minter might be gone, but the Tigers still have some quality players roaming around the position. Lamin Barrow will anchor the group and is coming off a season in which he registered 104 tackles, including 52 solo stops. He's getting a ton of NFL love and will get help from very talented sophomore Kwon Alexander, who only played seven games, but would have seen plenty more action if hadn't suffered a broken ankle midseason. Alexander could be primed for a huge season and might be the team's best linebacker. Senior Tahj Jones only played in one game last year because of academic issues, but he'll have every chance to start outside. Sophomores Deion Jones, Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist all saw good time last year and will be in the rotation along with incoming freshman Kendell Beckwith, who could immediately push for a starting spot.

3. Ole Miss: The Rebels work in that 4-2-5 defense, but have a lot of talent at linebacker, starting with big-hitting senior captain Mike Marry, who has 22 career starts and finished last season with 78 tackles with 10.5 for loss. The pleasant surprise from this group last year was Denzel Nkemdiche, who was a second-team All-SEC member as a freshman after leading Ole Miss in tackles (82), tackles for loss (13) and forced fumbles (four). The thing that makes Nkemdiche so valuable is that he knows all of the linebacker positions and covers a ton of ground with his speed. Long-time Rebel D.T. Shackelford is back after two knee surgeries, but had a very good spring and should provide quality depth and excellent leadership. Then you have talented reserve Serderius Bryant, who could start at a lot of schools. Don't forget about the hybrid "Husky" position that will feature top recruit Antonio Conner.

4. Tennessee: The Vols bring back the league's top tackler in A.J. Johnson and excellent pass-rusher Curt Maggitt, who had his 2012 season shortened because of injury. He should be back to full health this fall, but could move to defensive end. Johnson has a chance to play his way into the first round of next year's NFL draft. Senior Dontavis Sapp doesn't have a ton of experience, but was a star this spring and has the ability to play any of the linebacker spots. Four senior backups return and have combined to play in nearly 140 games. The only problem is that they've also combined for just one start. Senior Brent Brewer also moved from safety to linebacker to give the Vols a lot of speed on the outside.

5. Florida: The Gators lost two valuable players in Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, but they still have a ton of young talent to work with, starting with Antonio Morrison. He ran into legal trouble this summer, but he has a chance to be an All-SEC player after moving from outside to middle linebacker. Dante Fowler Jr. and Ronald Powell will rotate at the hybrid defensive end/linebacker "Buck" position, but Powell could see more time at strongside linebacker. If he's healthy after his two ACL injuries, he could be an elite pass-rusher. Hard-hitting and dependable Michael Taylor left spring as the starting weakside linebacker, while freshman Daniel McMillian had an outstanding spring at the Will position. Fellow freshman Alex Anzalone was a top recruit in the 2013 class and should vie for plenty of time, while vets Darrin Kitchens and Neiron Ball will push for starting spots.

6. Vanderbilt: This was supposed to be a concern for the Commodores last year, but it ended up being a strength. Do-everything leader Chase Garnham is back, along with his 43 solo tackles, seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. He's the heart of the defense. Hybrid linebacker/safety (Star) Karl Butler returns and should continue to put a lot of heat on opposing backfields. He registered 11.5 tackles for loss last season. Sophomore Darreon Herring has to replace the very reliable Archibald Barnes, but saw plenty of time last year as the Commodores' top reserve at linebacker. Sophomores Larry Franklin and Jake Sealand provide good depth after seeing significant time last year.

[+] EnlargeBenardrick McKinney
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreBenardrick McKinney was named to the Freshman All-SEC Team following last season.
7. Mississippi State: Starters Benardrick McKinney (102 tackles) and Deontae Skinner (62 tackles) return, giving Mississippi State a very sound foundation to work with. McKinney was quietly one of the league's top linebackers last year and could be even better this fall. Veteran Ferlando Bohanna, who has tremendous speed, will provide good depth, and the staff is excited about the versatility junior Matt Wells has. Losing Chris Hughes this summer hurts, but the Bulldogs will be able to cover a lot of ground with this group of rangy, athletic linebackers.

8. Georgia: Like every defensive position, the Bulldogs lost a lot at linebacker, but there is some promising young talent that should get better as the season goes on. Everything revolves around sophomore Jordan Jenkins, who could end up being an elite pass-rusher after learning under Jarvis Jones last season. Jenkins was second on the team in sacks last season with five and should be even more disruptive in Jones' old spot. Junior Amarlo Herrera started nine games and will be the captain of the unit inside. Junior Ramik Wilson had a very good spring and has found his spot inside, while sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons will play some linebacker when he isn't at safety and has a chance to be a star. Sophomore James DeLoach also had a very good spring outside. Freshmen Reggie Carter and Ryne Rankin will also have ample opportunities for good playing time this fall.

9. Kentucky: Having Alvin "Bud" Dupree moving to defensive end hurts, but the Wildcats still have two solid options returning in Avery Williamson and youngster Khalid Henderson, who has playmaker written all over him. Williamson enters his senior season with 194 career tackles. Finding someone to take the other linebacker spot is the goal of fall camp. Miles Simpson started 11 games and had 70 tackles last year, but has to be more consistent. Junior Kory Brown and sophomore Josh Forrest will compete for that spot too and might be more athletic, but they lack experience. Malcolm McDuffen still hasn't reached his potential and Demarius Rancifer has decided to transfer.

10. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost starters Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter and are now surrounded by youth. Veteran Steven Jenkins is back, but he missed spring practice due to offseason shoulder surgery. He had time to work with junior college transfer Tommy Sanders, which will help a lot this fall, as he vies for a starting spot outside. The Aggies will have to rely on youngsters at linebacker, but junior Donnie Baggs looks like he'll start at middle linebacker. But after that it's all about newcomers, including new linebackers coach Mark Hagen. Freshmen Reggie Chevis and Brett Wade both went through spring practice, which helps, but expect growing pains from this unit.

11. Missouri: The Tigers are fortunate to have senior Andrew Wilson and his 23 career starts back, but there isn't a lot of experience beyond that. Wilson has also led the Tigers in tackles in back-to-back seasons (79 last year). Donovan Bonner, a senior, and Kentrell Brothers showed flashes this spring, but both have to be more consistent. The same goes for Darvin Ruise, who entered the spring as a starter and played primarily on special teams last year. Keep an eye on freshman Michael Scherer, who has the talent to be a stud. There is athleticism here, but tackling was a major issue with this unit last year.

12. Arkansas: The Razorbacks return veterans A.J. Turner and Otha Peters, but the best overall player at this position might be junior college transfer Martrell Spaight. That could be both good and bad, but the fact of the matter is that Turner and Peters have to improve and get over their injuries from the spring if they want starting jobs this fall. Senior Jarrett Lake had a good spring and could be the leader here. Freshman Brooks Ellis could make an immediate impact too. Experience is a bigger issue than talent with this unit. Also, the staff could spend the preseason moving everyone around.

13. Auburn: This unit really struggled last year with getting lined up right and making tackles. There should be improvement with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense, but players need to get better. Star hybrid Justin Garrett had a great spring and could be primed for a breakout year. He can play in the box and cover, so he'll really help this unit. The good news is that Johnson needs just two linebackers for his 4-2-5 scheme. But those players have to perform. Sophomore Kris Frost made strides this spring and Jake Holland is experienced, while Cassanova McKinzy and JaViere Mitchell should vie for the other linebacker spot.

14. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost their entire two-deep at linebacker and had to move tight end Kelvin Rainey to linebacker to help with depth. There are a lot of bodies, but the experience is really lacking. Sophomore Kaiwan Lewis made strides this spring at middle linebacker, while junior Sharrod Golightly left spring with the edge at the hybrid Spur position. Freshmen T.J. Holloman and Jordan Diggs will compete for time this spring, but, again, they have no experience. Sophomore Cedrick Cooper missed spring while recovering from knee surgery, but should start at weakside linebacker.

Ole Miss Rebels spring wrap

May, 6, 2013
2012 record: 7-6
2012 conference record: 3-5
Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 11; kicker/punter: 0

Top returners

QB Bo Wallace, RB Jeff Scott, WR Donte Moncrief, OG Aaron Morris, DE C.J. Johnson, LB Mike Marry, LB Denzel Nkemdiche, CB Charles Sawyer

Key losses

RB/WR Randall Mackey, OG A.J. Hawkins, DT Gilbert Pena, K Bryson Rose

2012 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: Jeff Scott* (846 yards)
Passing: Bo Wallace* (2,994 yards)
Receiving: Donte Moncrief* (979 yards)
Tackles: Denzel Nkemdiche* (82)
Sacks: C.J. Johnson* (6.5)
Interceptions: Denzel Nkemdiche*, Dehendret Collins*, Senquez Golson* (3)

Spring answers

1. Running wild: Senior Jeff Scott gives the Rebels a proven breakaway threat at running back. He also carried the ball nearly 200 times last season, but might get some relief in 2013. Sophomores I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton and freshman Mark Dodson all had big springs, and they’re all different types of runners. It’s a given that you need more than one running back to make it through an entire SEC season, and Ole Miss might have three or four they can count on in 2013.

2. Ward shows flashes: One of the most physically gifted players returning for Ole Miss on defense is sophomore end Channing Ward. The push this spring was for him to cut it loose and play and become that every-down game-changer he was projected to be coming out of high school. Toward the end of spring practice, he looked like he was starting to get it. The 6-foot-4, 256-pound Ward missed most of preseason practice as a freshman last season while waiting to be cleared by the NCAA. If he can pick up in August where he left off in the spring, he has a chance to be a force coming off the edge.

3. Bright future: Most of the buzz this spring in Oxford centered around the celebrated signing class Hugh Freeze and his staff assembled. It was rated No. 5 nationally by ESPN and features the country’s No. 1 overall prospect -- defensive end Robert Nkemdiche. He can’t get to campus soon enough as far as Ole Miss fans are concerned and will be joined by the likes of offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, receiver Laquon Treadwell and safety Antonio Conner -- all top 25 players nationally. Some serious talent is on the way.

Fall questions

1. Wallace’s maturation: In his first season in the SEC, quarterback Bo Wallace finished fifth in the league in total offense with an average of 260.3 yards per game. He accounted for 30 touchdowns and made his share of plays in the Rebels’ fast-break offense. He also threw a league-high 17 interceptions, although he made better decisions toward the latter part of the season. He missed the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery. His big challenge in the fall is continuing to be the playmaker he was for the Rebels last season, but doing so while taking better care of the ball. He also needs to stay in one piece and pick his spots when it comes to taking on defenders.

2. Defending the pass: Ole Miss finished 11th in the SEC last season in pass defense and gave up 22 touchdown passes. The fact that junior cornerback Senquez Golson gave up baseball and concentrated solely on football this spring was a plus. Getting back Nick Brassell would also be huge. Freeze has said he thinks that Brassell can be an NFL cornerback, but academics have been a struggle for Brassell. So depending on what happens with Brassell, depth at cornerback could be an issue.

3. On the mend: The Rebels had a wide array of players out or limited with injuries this spring. Not only was Wallace sidelined after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, but defensive end C.J. Johnson broke his leg early during spring practice. Cornerback Charles Sawyer also missed the last half of spring with a minor injury, while receiver Donte Moncrief was banged up as well. Depth is still a problem for the Rebels, and even with the highly-rated signing class on its way, it’s always a bit of a guessing game on who’s going to be all the way back to 100 percent come fall.

Lunchtime links

April, 2, 2013
You can take Chris' record in NCAA Football on Playstation and put it against mine, and he can't compare.
We now shift our attention to the West to examine some of the more promising developments to come out of spring practice.

The SEC champion has come out of the West each of the past four seasons, although nobody has repeated as SEC champion since Tennessee in 1997 and 1998. Alabama will be looking to end that 15-year drought this coming season.

Here’s a look at what we’ve learned so far this spring in the rugged West:

Aggies’ go-to guy: Ryan Swope made a ton of key plays for Texas A&M during his career and will be missed. But sophomore Mike Evans has picked up this spring right where he left off a year ago and looks more than capable of being the Aggies’ go-to guy in the passing game. He led the team with 82 catches for 1,105 yards last season as a redshirt freshman and should be even better his second time through the league.

Dialing up the pressure: The last thing Alabama coach Nick Saban is worried about is racking up a bunch of sack numbers, but he does want to harass the quarterback. Look for senior outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard to be even better in that role in 2013, and the guy who’s made a big push this spring is sophomore Denzel Devall, who looks like a natural as an edge pass-rusher when the Tide go to their nickel package.

Passing the test: With Cam Cameron taking over as offensive coordinator at LSU, the Tigers have zeroed in this spring on a passing game that failed them on more than one occasion the past two years. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger has put up good numbers in scrimmages and has made what coach Les Miles described as more intuitive throws. The other encouraging thing for the Tigers is that junior receiver Jarvis Landry seems to be coming into his own.

Cox jumps right in: Three of the four starters in Mississippi State’s starting secondary last season are gone, including Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks. The Bulldogs needed some immediate help, and junior college cornerback Justin Cox has answered that call. He’s an aggressive cover guy, plays the ball well and isn’t afraid to be physical. Mississippi State needs a big season from him, and Cox looks like he’s up to the task.

Shackelford’s back: After fighting back from knee injuries and missing the past two seasons, senior linebacker D.T. Shackelford is back on the practice field and pointing toward a healthy 2013 season. He gives the Rebels some much-needed depth at linebacker. But more than that, he’s their emotional leader, and having him back on the field and playing will provide a huge boost for a team that's still pretty young.

Ole Miss linebacker D.T. Shackelford discusses returning to the football field after missing two seasons with knee injuries.

SEC lunch links

March, 28, 2013
Our Thursday stroll around the SEC:

Opening spring camp: Ole Miss

March, 15, 2013
Schedule: The Rebels open spring practice at 4 p.m. ET on Sunday, and will conclude the spring at 2 p.m. ET April 13 with the BancorpSouth Grove Bowl at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Practices are open to the public this spring.

What's new: After losing cornerbacks coach Wesley McGriff to the New Orleans Saints last month, the Rebels replaced him with former Oklahoma State assistant Jason Jones. Jones will coach Ole Miss' cornerbacks, and holds the title of co-defensive coordinator.

On the mend: Starting quarterback Bo Wallace will miss all of spring practice as he recovers from offseason clavicle surgery. Junior wide receiver Collins Moore will only take part in non-contact drills this spring, as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery. Junior left guard Aaron Morris is expected to miss spring drills after having shoulder surgery.

On the move: With Wallace out for the spring, senior Barry Brunetti will take the majority of the first-team snaps at quarterback, but there's a chance he could play multiple positions this fall when Wallace returns. Junior college transfer Quadarias Mireles arrived at Ole Miss this spring as an athlete and will start the spring at cornerback. Moore could play safety once his shoulder heals. Sophomore wide receiver Cody Core could also plays some safety this spring, and redshirt freshman Temario Strong is moving from defensive tackle to linebacker.

New faces: The Rebels welcomed Mireles and defensive tackle Lavon Hooks from juco this spring. Freshman running back Mark Dodson and freshman tight end Christian Morgan also enrolled early. Nick Brassell is also back with the team after going the juco route in 2012 due to academic issues. He was a two-way player for the Rebels at both receiver and cornerback as a freshman in 2011, but will start the spring at corner.

Question marks: The Rebels return four starters along the offensive line, but will be without their best lineman from a year ago in right guard A.J. Hawkins. Ole Miss has some solid options to work with this spring, but replacing a guy like Hawkins won't be easy. The Rebels have to replace their top three tight ends from last season, including full-time starter Ferbia Allen. Senior Justin Bigham, who mostly played on special teams last season, is the lone letterman returning to the position. Morgan and redshirt freshman John Youngblood will also compete there this spring. Starting kicker Bryson Rose is gone, leaving redshirt senior Andrew Ritter and freshman Andy Pappanastos to compete for that spot.

Key battle: The departure of Hawkins leaves the Rebels with a major hole on the offensive line. He had the best season of any of Ole Miss' offensive linemen last season, and replacing him will be very tough. Versatile senior Patrick Junen will take the first snaps at right guard this spring, but he will really be challenged by athletic sophomore Justin Bell. The coaches expect a few others to compete for Hawkins' old spot as well.

Breaking out: Sophomore defensive end Channing Ward arrived at Ole Miss last year with a lot of hype surrounding him. He played in 12 games, registering 21 tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss, but much more is expected from him in Year 2. Ward has all the tools to be a major player up front for the Rebels. Senior wide receiver Philander Moore could be poised to have a big spring as well. He only played in eight games last season, catching four passes for 38 yards and touchdown, but he's been around the program long enough that the coaches are looking for him to take the next step. The coaches are also excited to see what redshirt junior defensive end Carlos Thompson and senior wide receiver Korvic Neat can do this spring.

Don't forget about: Senior linebacker D.T. Shackelford is finally back on the playing field after two straight years with knee injuries. Even during his absence from the playing field, he's still been one of the team's top leaders. That role should only expand with him coming back. He's an extremely versatile players, who has played well at both linebacker and defensive end during his career. He registered five sacks back in 2010 and was a part of the SEC All-Freshman team in 2009. He should be 100 percent this spring, and having him on the field this fall will instantly make this defense better.

All eyes on: Brunetti has had a very interesting career with the Rebels, but he's getting yet another chance to prove that he can be the quarterback when his number is called. Coach Hugh Freeze liked to switch Brunetti and Wallace in and out at times last seaosn, but Brunetti was used as more of a runner. This is a great chance for him to develop more as a passer and become an even bigger weapon for the Rebels this fall.
For college students, Spring Break is one of the best times of the year. It's a chance to get away from the classroom (more than usual, of course) to mix some rest and relaxation with a ton of unsupervised fun.

Immaturity really is a must for this special time of year.

But a few members of Ole Miss' football team decided to use their time during the break for more humanitarian endeavors. Instead of hitting the white, sandy beaches of Panama City, Fla., six Ole Miss players, a team manager and the team chaplain are in the capital city of the Republic of Panama, where they will visit an orphanage, feed the homeless, speak to school-age children and run a free football clinic, along with other activities.

“It says a lot about not only their character, but the environment that Coach [Hugh] Freeze and his staff have brought to this university,” team chaplain John Powell said in a release through the school. “They understand the importance of giving back to those who are in need, and this opportunity gives them a chance to do that in a real way.”

The six Ole Miss players -- senior linebacker D.T. Shackelford, sophomore offensive lineman Justin Bell, junior defensive backs Ontario Berry and Josh Richardson, freshman defensive end Kameron Wood, and freshman tight end John Youngblood -- are being accompanied by 10-15 other college and professional athletes while in Panama.

The players arrived on Monday and will leave Friday. Ole Miss' spring practice begins Sunday.

Since NCAA rules prohibited players from raising money for the trip, Powell raised support for the group through donations and received more than $1,600 above what was needed for travel and living expenses in Panama.

The idea to head to Panama came from former Ole Miss quarterback Michael Spurlock, who went on a short-term mission trip to Panama last year with some of his Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammates and team chaplain Doug Gilcrease. With Spurlok unable to make a return trip this year, he reached out to Ole Miss to see if any players would be interested in going in his place.

It isn't exactly partying on the beach, but there's no doubt that these players will also return from their time away from Oxford with some interesting stories to tell.

“My hope is that we all come back realizing how blessed we are here and that will carry over into how we look at our teammates, how we serve our community, how we approach our education and being grateful for all those things,” Powell said.