At long last, Rebels ready for spring

OXFORD – For Ole Miss, the opportunity to distance itself from a disastrous 2010 football season couldn’t come soon enough, and now it’s here.
Spring football begins Monday for the Rebels, the last SEC team to strap it on for 15 days of practice.
After a 4-8 season there are a lot of questions that need answering, a lot of positions to tweak, areas that need help in pursuit of improvement.
Here are four spring sub-plots to keep an eye on.
The Quarterbacks: Four will get meaningful reps, but it could come down to a couple of pocket passers, a program veteran in Nathan Stanley and junior college transfer Zack Stoudt.
Randall Mackey, a junior college All-American who was redshirted last year, could overcome a speech issue and win out, but Mackey could also be extremely valuable to the offense in other ways – slot receiver, Wild Rebel and maybe some running back.
West Virginia signee Barry Brunetti will get some looks, but he won’t get on the field in 2011 unless he can present a compelling case for the NCAA to waive its one-year residency requirement of all transfers. The case is pending.
Stanley is entering his fourth year in the program, but it might actually be to his advantage that there is a break – somewhat – with the past.
Stanley shined in the 2010 season opener completed 6 of 10 passes, three for touchdowns, but he fell off the map after that. Clearly, Jeremiah Masoli was the best option for the Ole Miss offense last year, but Stanley’s role was scaled back more than one would have thought once he did not win the starting job.
Stanley was prepared as the starter for the Tennessee game, a week of meaningful reps, because Masoli had sustained a concussion the week before.
Not only did Stanley not start the game, he didn’t get on the field until the Rebels trailed 45-14, and Masoli had thrown three picks, two returned for touchdowns.
That’s a red flag of disconnect between coach and player. This spring will bring a new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in David Lee.
Spring is about development. Maybe Stanley grows in the coming weeks, or maybe come August the Rebels have a starting quarterback making his first Division I start.
The secondary: Ole Miss was last in the SEC in pass defense efficiency and had fewer interceptions than any other SEC team.
Rebels coach Houston Nutt picked up a mid-year junior college transfer cornerback in Wesley Pendleton. He’s very fast. How well he plays the ball once he bodies up with a receiver remains to be seen.
If Pendleton can earn a starting job and make a quick impact it will go a long way in improving a defense that was lacking in many areas.
The Offensive Line: The unit lacked health, experience and stability and struggled early last season, at one point starting three different freshmen, one of them a walk-on, on the interior.
The line started to play better at the end of last season. There is a wealth of experience at tackle in senior Bradley Sowell on the left side, junior Bobby Massie on the right.
But what makes the group intriguing is Matt Hall, a one-time four-star prospect who sat out last season after transferring from Arkansas. He was recruited by Nutt at Arkansas but signed with Bobby Petrino.
At 6-foot-9, 321 pounds he’s got a tackle’s body, but tackle isn’t where the Rebels need help right now. If Hall shows the ability to step down to guard and give the staff more options there, this line could really be pretty good.
Winning those one-on-one battles up front would help Ole Miss thrive with talent and depth at running back and go a long way in taking pressure off a quarterback who will be inexperienced no matter who ends up winning the job.
The new coaches: Lee is joined by Gunter Brewer, who will coach receivers and coordinate the passing game. Keith Burns joins the staff as defensive backs coach.
Brewer will have spring to mold a handful of productive returning players with no true star and will have now toys to play with in August.
Burns says he wants to play more press coverage and lessen the cushion between a cornerback and the man he’s covering.
Can these guys get enough out of these players for improvement to show up in the win column?
Parrish Alford (parrish.alford@ journalinc.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.

Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal