Talented freshmen give Ole Miss hope

By David Brandt/The Associated Press

OXFORD — It’s not often that a college football player — let alone a freshman — will give his coach advice.

Ole Miss receiver Nickolas Brassell couldn’t help himself. He had to let Houston Nutt know what was on his mind.

“I know I can make more plays by just being on the field more,” Brassell said. “I know what I can do when I have the ball in my hands.”

Nutt listened. And the result was an Ole Miss offense that was much more dynamic last weekend despite a 29-24 loss to No. 10 Arkansas. He’ll likely be at the forefront once again when the Rebels (2-5, 0-4 Southeastern Conference) travel to face Auburn (5-3, 3-2) on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

The 6-foot, 175-pounder from Batesville, Miss., led the Rebels with eight catches for 70 yards and also rushed for 23 yards on five carries against the Razorbacks. He’s even used occasionally on defense as a lockdown cornerback in passing situations.

Nutt spent the first half of the season slowly inserting Brassell and several other talented freshmen onto the college field. But no more. As Ole Miss continues its search for conference victories, it’s become obvious that Brassell and fellow freshman Donte Moncrief give the Rebels the best chance at being competitive.

“There are no limitations,” Nutt said. “We’re throwing them out there. Throwing the gameplan to them. They’re accepting it and learning and playing extremely hard with a competitive spirit. That’s what we appreciate.”

Brassell and Moncrief are the two stars of a freshman class that’s playing a huge role this season. Aaron Morris has pushed his way into the starting lineup at left guard while linebackers Serderius Bryant and Keith Lewis, along with cornerback Senquez Golson, are on the field more and more each Saturday.

It’s not necessarily by design. Though there’s undeniable talent, there have also been injuries and the realization that some of the older players simply aren’t good enough.

The freshmen certainly haven’t been perfect. But they’ve been competitive.

“The one thing you love about them is whether we play Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn — they’re ready to compete,” Nutt said. “… What they’ve got to keep doing now is keep adjusting to the speed of the game. Fundamentals. You just can’t expect that the ball is going to come to you — that you’re going to make the catch without looking it in.”

Brassell and Moncrief have given the Rebels sorely needed playmaking ability.

Brassell admits that he hasn’t done a lot of thinking on the football field, instead relying on his raw ability to make big plays. He said he’s starting to get an understanding of how to utilize film study in learning opponent tendencies, but doesn’t want to get bogged down in the details.

“I just go out there and ball,” Brassell said. “That’s all I know right now. Just go out there and do my part. I can’t think about what they’re doing on defense. I just try to handle my assignment and make my play.”

Moncrief caught two touchdowns passes against Arkansas and has a team-leading 304 receiving yards and four touchdowns this season. At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, he has the strength of a much older player and the speed to beat opponents downfield for big gains.

But consistency can be an issue. Moncrief dropped a deep pass for what would have been huge gain against Arkansas in the second half, and the Rebels’ offense never really recovered. It was also one of many reasons Ole Miss blew an early 17-0 lead.

“It shows you what our conference is about,” Nutt said. “It doesn’t matter if the team is ranked (10th) in the country or whoever it is. This is the toughest league in America. Everyone’s got to be ready to play. Everyone. Those 60 minutes are so important and we’ve got to do a better job with those last 30 minutes — finishing.”

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