PARRISH ALFORD: Rebel defense will have to carry the load early

HOOVER, Ala. – Better get some ice rags ready. Neither Tyrone Nix nor Nathan Stanley will accompany Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt to SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., this week, but they’ll be discussed in great detail on Friday afternoon. Their ears will be burning.
As coordinator, it’s Nix’s defense that has to play well early. He says there’s no extra pressure on his players. Because of their experience, however, there is more expectation for his players. Maybe that equates to pressure, maybe not.
On a roster that loses major production at every position except one – defensive tackle – it’s the defense that returns some very good players, particularly up front.
The reason the defense has to bring its mid-season form to the opening kickoff is because of Stanley. At least in part.
He’s the starting quarterback, and he’s taken meaningful snaps in only one game, the Cotton Bowl.
Seems like more responsibility would fall to a senior-laden defense early while the moisture behind Stanley’s ears evaporates.
“We have to play at a high level regardless of what we have on offense. That’s been our standard,” Nix says. “There’s no added pressure. The expectations haven’t changed.”
But the situation has.
For all the struggle that last season became for Jevan Snead, he did give the Rebels a proven starter under center coming out of the gate.
Though Nutt has confidence in Stanley to be an effective player, Stanley represents the opposite end of that spectrum.
You can work through a young quarterback, but what complicates matters for Ole Miss is the lack of experience around him.
Stanley doesn’t have a proven running back or receiver to rely on.
The irony is the most talked-about player on offense, that unit’s lone representative at Media Days, is left tackle Bradley Sowell. It was Sowell’s slow start last season that contributed to Snead being something less than what he showed as a sophomore at the close of the 2008 season.
But while Sowell improved last year, Snead did not. So as Stanley begins role as the starter with far less playing time than his predecessor, he at least begins it with more trust in his blind-side protection. Perhaps that will help him settle into a comfort zone quickly.
This experience void on offense exists, because so much of the load was carried by seniors Dexter McCluster and Shay Hodge last year.
The second or third year after a coaching change can be the most difficult. This is a big year for Nutt. The players he’s signed are working into larger roles. His current recruiting class has built momentum with a surge of July commitments.
If he can develop the playmakers to form a productive offensive unit and in this rebuilding year get the Rebels to a mid-level bowl game, come November he’ll have more recruits “swimming to the boat,” as he likes to say.
Such development takes time, and during the process Nutt will lean on Nix and his defense.
Maybe a little more than normal.
Parrish Alford (parrish.alford@djournal.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.

Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal