September 28, 2008

Perseverance pays off for McCluster

GAINESVILLE, Fla. _ Something tells me Dexter McCluster slept like a baby Saturday night.

One week ago, Ole Miss' do-it-all wide receiver stayed up until 5 a.m. on Sunday morning, reliving the fumble at the Vanderbilt 1-yard line that was the coup de grace in a not-so-funny comedy of errors that eventually finished in a 23-17 loss to the Commodores in Oxford.

When McCluster finally climbed between the sheets, he tossed and turned. Memories that fresh burn badly, especially for a stand-up guy like McCluster who wants success more than anyone can imagine. He could have crawled into a proverbial hole and disappeared from view last week. Instead, he was the same McCluster he's always been -- a leader who sets an example through his actions and his words.

"Last week took a toll on me," McCluster said, "but I let it go. I just wanted to go out there and do whatever I could for the team."

McCluster knew he would be a big part of Ole Miss' gameplan at Florida. The Rebels knew running lanes would be tight against the Gators' lightning-quick defense and that quarterback Jevan Snead wouldn't have worlds of time in the pocket due to the speed of Florida's pass rush. In other words, one week after one of the lowest points of his college career, Ole Miss was going to snap the ball to McCluster in the "Wild Rebel" and take its chances.

McCluster rose to the occasion. He had 11 carries for 60 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter to give the Rebels a 24-17 lead, and he caught two passes for 17 yards.

Kentrell Lockett, Marcus Temple, Peria Jerry, Jevan Snead and Shay Hodge will be remembered as the heroes of Ole Miss' 31-30 win at The Swamp, but McCluster's perseverance was noted by many. McCluster insisted it wasn't a big deal, stating that having a big role was a "good thing," McCluster said. "It's faith, believing that we are a better team than we showed. We've been in a lot of close games. The wait was well worth it."

Afterwards, McCluster sought out Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, who had found him last Sunday and made sure that McCluster knew that neither he nor his staff nor his teammates had lost any faith in him whatsoever.

"He looked us in the eyes last week and told us we can be a great team," McCluster said. "He told us if we minimized our mistakes and stopped shooting ourselves in the foot, we can be a great team. We just had to play as a team, keep the faith and have one heartbeat. When he talks to us, it means a lot. It comes from the heart and he's a players' coach, as are the other coaches around him. We believe in him, man, just like he believes in us."

McCluster's confidence was never shaken, but finally getting off the hook in the Southeastern Conference has the Rebels thinking of bigger things now. South Carolina comes to town Saturday for homecoming, and McCluster and the Rebels have no intention of losing the momentum they garnered in Gainesville.

"This gives us that extra umph," McCluster said. "We can beat anybody if we set our minds to it and play our game. Last year, at this point in time, people were kind of letting go of the rope. This year, we're a different team. We knew we just had to keep on holding on to that rope. It came."

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