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March 26, 2009

Ole Miss won't sneak up on anybody anymore

Ole Miss was one of the nation's biggest surprises in 2008.

New coach Houston Nutt took over a team with talent but without much direction. He provided the direction, and the Rebels responded with a nine-win season that included an upset of Florida in the regular season and an upset of Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl.

This season, 15 starters are back, including a plethora of skill-position folks. Getting the offensive line up to snuff will be the highest priority this spring.

Here's a look at the Rebels as they get ready to open spring practice.

OLE MISS AT-A-GLANCE
Quarterback Jevan Snead returns to lead what should be a strong offense for Ole Miss.
THE BASICS
Coach: Houston Nutt
Last season: 9-4, 5-3 SEC. Beat Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl.
Spring dates: March 26-April 18
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (7): RB Cordera Eason, C Daverin Geralds, WR Shay Hodge, T John Jerry, WR Dexter McCluster, G Reid Neely, QB Jevan Snead.
Defense (8): LB Jonathan Cornell, CB Marshay Green, T Ted Laurent, FS Kendrick Lewis, E Kentrell Lockett, E Marcus Tillman, CB Cassius Vaughn, LB Allen Walker.
Special teams (1): K Joshua Shene.
Positions of strength

The Rebels will rely on what should be a strong offense led by a plethora of skill-position talent. It all begins with quarterback Jevan Snead. Every wide receiver of note is back except Mike Wallace. Dexter McCluster was one of only two players in the SEC with 500 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards last season (Florida's Percy Harvin was the other). Last season's top four rushers are back. There are three good defensive ends: Kentrell Lockett, Marcus Tillman and Greg Hardy - who had a team-leading 8.5 sacks last season. There is depth at defensive tackle.

Help is needed

All of the skill-position talent could be short-circuited if a thin offensive line fails to develop or injuries mount. Cornerback looks shaky, though Marshay Green was defensive MVP in the Cotton Bowl. Is there a big-play linebacker on the roster?

Keep an eye on

G Rishaw Johnson and OT Bradley Sowell: Ole Miss is looking for a new starting guard and a new starting tackle, and these are the guys expected to take over. Both are sophomores. The line must come together for the Rebels' offense to truly take flight.

WR Markeith Summers: With Shay Hodge and McCluster back, the receiving corps has great potential. But it could be one of the best in the SEC if Summers a junior can take the next step in his development. He is a big target (6 feet 2/197 pounds) with decent speed.

His time is now

Hardy is good, but he hasn't really lived up to all the hype. He has talent galore, but a lack of motivation can turn Hardy into an ordinary player. Will he be dialed in this fall as a senior? If so, Hardy will be one of the most devastating pass rushers in the nation and in line for big NFL bucks.

The buzz

Nutt has said, "The wind blows harder at the top of the mountain." It's a refrain repeated often by players. Now is the time for the team to get mentally ready to make a run at the school's first SEC West title. There is no more sneaking up on foes. Ole Miss now is one of the hunted. How will the players react to the new role and big expectations?

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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