SEC: 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
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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
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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
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Looking back at some of the scrimmage highlights from this past Saturday:

ALABAMA

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.

AUBURN

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.

GEORGIA

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.

KENTUCKY

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.

OLE MISS

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.

SOUTH CAROLINA

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.

TENNESSEE

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.

VANDERBILT

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.

SEC bounce-back players: Ole Miss

July, 29, 2011
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Who's poised to bounce back at Ole Miss this season? Today, we take a look:

OFFENSE

Melvin Harris, WR, Jr.: Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt couldn't wait to get the 6-6, 210-pound Harris on the field last season, especially after seeing Harris catch a 61-yard touchdown pass in the spring game and then follow that up with a strong preseason camp. Sure enough, Harris caught a 41-yard touchdown pass in the Rebels' opener last season ... but caught only two more touchdown passes the rest of the way. He was also suspended for the Mississippi State game to end the season after being cited and charged with DUI. The Rebels are searching for playmakers in their passing game, and Harris has the size and speed to be their go-to guy. He just needs to be more consistent, not to mention make better decisions off the field. He caught 30 passes last season and seemed to be coming into his own until the suspension. If he can stay healthy, which was a problem earlier in his career, he could easily be a 50-catch guy.

DEFENSE

Kentrell Lockett, DE, Sr.: The most important recruit Ole Miss picked up this offseason was senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett, who was granted a rare sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after tearing his ACL last season. Lockett leads all returning SEC players in career tackles for loss with 23.5, and he's the kind of defender who can change the complexion of a game with one or two plays. The Rebels were never the same defensively a year ago after Lockett went down with his knee injury against Fresno State the fifth week of the season. He expects to be 100 percent in time for the 2011 opener against BYU, and being able to plug him back in Ole Miss will be huge for defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix. Not only will Lockett provide production from his end position, but he's also one of the Rebels' strongest leaders.

Coaching 'em up: Ole Miss

June, 30, 2011
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We take a closer look today at a key member of Ole Miss' staff.

Coach: Tyrone Nix

Position: Defensive coordinator and linebackers

Experience: He's entering his fourth season on the Ole Miss staff and was promoted to assistant head coach in January 2010. Prior to coming to Oxford, Nix was the defensive coordinator at South Carolina for three seasons from 2005-07 under Steve Spurrier. Nix spent 10 years on the Southern Miss staff from 1995-2004 and coached every position on defense. During his final four seasons at Southern Miss, he was the Golden Eagles' defensive coordinator. Ole Miss has finished among the top 20 teams nationally in tackles for loss all three of Nix's seasons as defensive coordinator.

Of note: The Rebels have generated more than 30 sacks in each of Nix's three seasons as defensive coordinator. They finished with 31 last season, 36 in 2009 and 39 in 2008. ... Nix, 38, got his first job as a defensive coordinator in 2001 at Southern Miss when he was just 29, making him the youngest Division I-A defensive coordinator in the country. ... In 2003, Nix was a finalist for the Broyles Award, which is given annually to the nation's top assistant coach. ... He played collegiately at Southern Miss from 1990-93 and was a standout linebacker. He was inducted in 2003 into the Southern Miss M-Club Hall of Fame. ... Former Florida coach Urban Meyer tried to hire Nix as the Gators' defensive coordinator when Charlie Strong took the head coaching job at Louisville following the 2009 season, but Nix stayed put at Ole Miss and received a hefty raise. He made $500,000 last season and will earn $550,000 in 2011.

His challenge: The Ole Miss defense took it on the chin last season, finishing 11th in the SEC in total defense and giving up just under 400 yards per game. Not much went right for Nix and the Rebels' defense, which was decimated by injuries and inexperience in the secondary. The Rebels gave up 24 touchdown passes and intercepted only six passes. Nix's first order of business in 2011 is seeing to it that his team rekindles that same edge and attacking, aggressive style that epitomized the 2008 and 2009 Ole Miss defensive units. Somewhere along the way, the Rebels lost that edge a year ago. And as linebackers coach, Nix faces a major rebuilding task. His top returning defender, junior D.T. Shackelford, tore up his knee in the spring and isn't expected back this season. Shackelford was the Rebels' weak side linebacker and also lined up some at defensive end. If that's not enough, sophomore linebacker Clarence Jackson was kicked off the team in May following his second arrest in nine months. Jackson ended the spring as the starter at weak side linebacker. The Rebels had already lost a pair of senior starters at linebacker from a year ago -- Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker. Nix is high on sophomore Mike Marry and junior Joel Kight, but there's not much in the way of proven depth at linebacker. Incoming true freshman C.J. Johnson will almost certainly have to play right away. It helps that defensive end Kentrell Lockett was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, but he's coming off a serious knee injury. The Rebels could really use big years from a couple of junior college transfers, namely nose guard Gilbert Pena and cornerback Wesley Pendleton, and it's a defense that needs something good to happen early to help build some momentum. Last season, it was just the opposite. The bottom fell out in that season-opening 49-48 overtime loss to Jacksonville State, and it was a struggle the rest of the way for Nix's guys.

SEC lunch links

April, 26, 2011
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Making the rounds in the SEC:

Another tough blow for Ole Miss

April, 12, 2011
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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.

Lockett, Ole Miss get good news

April, 1, 2011
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Ole Miss reeled in a top 25 recruiting class back in February, but it's a player the Rebels held onto thanks to Thursday's ruling by the NCAA who stands to be their most important recruit for the 2011 season.

Defensive end Kentrell Lockett was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA and will be back in Ole Miss' lineup next season.

Getting him back was huge for the Rebels on so many fronts. For one, he's that proven pass-rusher Tyrone Nix's defense needs off the edge. Lockett, who had five sacks in 2009, is also that voice in the locker room that everybody respects and listens to, and the way he goes about his business on the field is equally infectious.

Ole Miss' defense, coming off a rough 2010 season, needed a player it could hang its hat on, a player it could lean on during crucial situations. Junior linebacker D.T. Shackelford is that type of player, and now he has company. Lockett is also that type of player, and he knows what a quality SEC team looks like. He was a big part of those 2008 and 2009 Ole Miss teams that each won nine games, including back-to-back Cotton Bowls.

Lockett's season a year ago ended in the fourth game when he tore his ACL. His injury, coupled with other injuries and the overall inexperience on defense, was a killer for the Rebels.

It was a long rest of the season for Lockett and an even longer offseason. He had no assurances that he would be allowed to play again for the Rebels while he rehabilitated his surgically repaired knee. But having redshirted his first year on campus in 2006 due to a shoulder injury and missing two-thirds of the season last year after blowing out his knee, Lockett won his appeal with the NCAA for a sixth season based on medical hardship.

The NCAA has been accused in the past of not having a heart, but got it right in this case.

"It’s really good news,” Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said. “I know that’s been a real burden on his mind and our mind. Now there’s no question what he’s going to be doing much harder and that is rehabbing, school and getting ready."

Lockett won't participate in spring practice while he finishes up his rehabilitation. But knowing No. 40 will be back out there in the fall is a huge boost for the entire program.

“It’s his experience, locker-room presence and confidence," Nutt said. "I hate to think of not having him next year. I’m just really glad they made the right decision.”

The Rebels now hope to win one more appeal with the NCAA. Quarterback Barry Brunetti, who transferred from West Virginia, has filed a hardship waiver to be eligible to play right away. The basis for that waiver is his mother, who was injured in a car accident last year and had difficulty traveling long distances to see Brunetti play. She lives in Memphis.

Rebels open spring in need of cornerbacks

March, 29, 2011
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Defending the pass was nothing short of a nightmare last season for Ole Miss.

The Rebels ranked 103rd nationally in passing defense. They gave up 24 touchdown passes and intercepted only six passes.

Inexperience in the secondary was the chief culprit, and judging from the start of spring practice on Monday, the Rebels are going to have a difficult time solving a lot of those problems this spring just from a sheer numbers standpoint.

Ole Miss was down to three scholarship cornerbacks. The latest defection was Julian Whitehead, who’s decided to leave the team. Starting cornerback Marcus Temple was already out for the spring after undergoing surgery for a sports hernia.

Junior college newcomer Wesley Pendleton is one of the three scholarship cornerbacks available this spring, and he turned some heads in his first practice.

Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix conceded that it was far from ideal to have so few cornerbacks for spring practice, but Temple should be ready to go for the fall. He and sophomore Charles Sawyer were the starters a year ago, and Sawyer has a chance to blossom now that he’s gone through the SEC gauntlet for a year.

The Rebels don’t have any choice but to work some safeties at cornerback this spring, and it's never a bad idea to cross-train some of those guys in the secondary.

SEC spring preview: Western Division

February, 22, 2011
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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:

ALABAMA

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.
ARKANSAS

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.
AUBURN

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.
LSU

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.
MISSISSIPPI STATE

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.
OLE MISS

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.

Ole Miss season recap

December, 7, 2010
12/07/10
8:30
AM ET
It’s almost as if Ole Miss was doomed from the beginning this season.

The Rebels were stunned 49-48 in double overtime by FCS opponent Jacksonville State at home to open the season, and that was just the start of a nightmarish season.

The frustrating part for Ole Miss fans was that this was supposed to be one of those schedules where the Rebels (4-8) would be able to build up a bunch of wins during the first half of the season. But after losing to Jacksonville State, they lost two weeks later at home to Vanderbilt by two touchdowns.

The wheels were officially off at that point, although Ole Miss did manage to keep from going winless in the SEC thanks to a 42-35 win over Kentucky.

Injuries took their toll on Tyrone Nix’s defense. And after two excellent seasons in a row on that side of the ball, the Rebels sank to near the bottom of the SEC in nearly every defensive category.

Some will blame Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt for bringing in Jeremiah Masoli at quarterback for this season and disrupting team chemistry, but there’s really no evidence of that.

Offensive MVP: Running back Brandon Bolden. He just missed a 1,000-yard rushing season with 976 yards on 163 carries. Averaging 6 yards per carry, Bolden was a steady force for the Rebels and also led them in receiving with 32 catches for 344 yards. He scored 17 touchdowns -- 14 rushing and three receiving.

Defensive MVP: Linebacker Jonathan Cornell. He didn’t receive a lot of fanfare because Ole Miss struggled so much on defense, but Cornell quietly put together a stellar senior season. He led the team with 80 total tackles, including 14 tackles for loss and was second on the team with 4.5 sacks.

Turning point: Look no further than that first game. Losing the opener is always tough. But when you lose to an FCS team at home in the opener, there’s usually no recovering from that ... and the Rebels didn’t.

What’s next: After winning back-to-back Cotton Bowls, the Rebels will spend this postseason at home. Nutt asked the fans for patience following the embarrassing 52-14 loss to Tennessee. If the Rebels don’t get back to a bowl game next season, and certainly if they lose to rival Mississippi State for a third straight year, that patience will run thin very quickly.

SEC lunch links

November, 5, 2010
11/05/10
12:10
PM ET
Some Friday linkage for your viewing pleasure:

SEC lunch links

October, 6, 2010
10/06/10
12:02
PM ET
Making the rounds in the SEC on hump day:

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