PARRISH ALFORD: Big questions on Rebel offense

By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – Football season never really ends, but sometimes it rests, and that’s the state we enter now at the conclusion of spring practice.
It would appear the Ole Miss offense made some strides in its 15 practice sessions, but read the fine print. The key word is “practice,” where quarterbacks aren’t hit and kickers aren’t rushed.
There’s only so much you can tell before game day, when the guy on the other side of the ball wants not only to make the tackle but to hurt someone.
With that being said, it looks like the Rebels have a chance to be pretty good on defense, particularly up front, where they’ve been very good for the last two years.
Junior college transfer Damien Jackson, at safety, will make a quick impact, and redshirt freshman Charles Sawyer will challenge for a starting job at corner.
The Rebels will be inexperienced at some defensive spots, but there will always be a veteran nearby. It’s a different level of know-how than the work-in-progress on the other side.
With that, I present to you the top three questions going into August practice, all of them from some place other than defense.
1 – Quarterback. Nathan Stanley pulled away late in spring drills to take command in the race for No. 1, a surge made possible by his own play but also by the limited availability of his competition, Raymond Cotton.
It was discovered late last week that Cotton has a torn labrum, a pre-existing condition in his throwing shoulder that may go all the way back to his high school career. A course of treatment for Cotton will be determined within a couple of weeks. The options are play through it, rest it when it’s sore, and hope for the best – or have surgery.
With a strong performance in Saturday’s Grove Bowl, Cotton showed fans what the quarterback race was missing when he was at half-strength or absent and floated the idea that the starting job may not be a foregone conclusion if he’s healthy in August.
Probably, Cotton will play through his current condition unless doctors advise him that doing so could cause further damage and complicate the surgery and subsequent rehab.
If Cotton has surgery in the off-season that creates an interesting situation. Stanley may very well be the starter, but he has very little game experience, and if he stumbles, the only alternative is a junior college transfer – a very athletic one – who will not arrive before the summer.
For all the talent Randall Mackey may have, winning the quarterback job in August will be difficult for a guy who will begin practicing with new teammates at that time.
The program is far more stable than in 2006 when on signing day former coach Ed Orgeron named another junior college transfer, Brent Schaeffer, as the starter before he knew for sure Schaeffer would even qualify academically. Still, if Cotton is unavailable in August, Mackey’s role could increase dramatically.
2 – Offensive line. Nutt is hanging his wide brim hat on tackles Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie, expecting them to anchor the line.
The key here is Rishaw Johnson, a junior, rehabilitated after being suspended for the back half of 2009. There will be three new starters from guard to guard. Johnson has the only game experience, and that’s not much. He also has a bit of a mean streak when playing, more than Sowell and Massie. With youth and inexperience at quarterback, a running game is a must-have. That will take some pressure off Stanley, and Johnson may be the key to creating ample space between the tackles.
3 – Place-kicking. There are other concerns, certainly, but while the defense will have to carry this team at least in the early-going, a rebuilding offense needs to be rewarded when it gets inside the opponent’s 25-yard line. You have to hit 40-yard field goals in the SEC.
Sophomore Bryson Rose looked like he might pull away and win the job early in spring, but he missed some kicks at the end, and finding the replacement for Josha Shene, an All-SEC performer, is not a task wiped off the to-do list just yet.
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600 or parrish.alford@djournal.com