OXFORD – It’s one thing to look to the possibilities of 2009, but Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt wants to take things a step further.
At the Rebels’ media day on Tuesday, Nutt talked with great optimism about the coming season.
He talked just as much about seasons down the road and building a consistent winner. A program for which high expectations don’t cause such a stir.
The Rebels return eight starters on defense, six on offense, including Jevan Snead, the most accomplished quarterback in the SEC West.
They’ve been the trendy top 10 pick through the off-season. They’ve been pegged No. 6 by Sports Illustrated and will be on the magazine’s cover – Snead and center Daverin Geralds – for its preseason college football edition.
“It’s crazy. To come from where we were and now to be ranked top five? We have to play up to those standards,” junior defensive end Kentrell Lockett said. “It’s kind of like it’s too fast. At the beginning of the season last year we were thought to win three or four games like we normally would.”
The positive vibe around Ole Miss this season is basically the result of six football games, all of them wins, to close out 2008.
The Rebels announced their relevance with a 31-30 win over national champion Florida in Gainesville, but they proceeded to lose the next two games, the first one at home against South Carolina.
Within the six-game win streak, the Rebels twice throttled ranked opponents – LSU and Texas Tech – on national television. They pitched shutouts against overmatched offenses from Louisiana-Monroe and Mississippi State.
“It’s important for us to come back this year and not have that roller coaster,” Nutt said. “We need to come back and get to a bowl game, get back to competing for a championship. When you win, you build. You have another recruiting class like the one we just signed. You have classes like that back-to-back, and you have something special.”
Nutt believes the recruiting class he signed in February – ranked No. 18 by Rivals — can be that cornerstone type of class.
There actually are few position battles, so to speak, in camp, and when Nutt was asked about them Tuesday, his answer immediately strayed to his freshmen and those he believes have a chance to get on the field quickly. The list includes wide receiver Patrick Patterson and linebackers D.T. Shackelford and Joel Kight.
Also in that group is defensive back Darius “Tig” Barksdale, who went through Tuesday’s afternoon practice after gaining academic clearance on Monday. Though on the practice field, Barksdale still faces punishment from Nutt for last week’s DUI arrest.
While he’s giddy over his freshmen, Nutt’s team is in the preseason spotlight because of its returning players, most notably Snead.
“I feel like I can still improve on my fundamentals and in getting the ball out of my hand quicker,” Snead said.
There is still improvement to be made in all quarters, but on the whole the confidence level from the players to Nutt and vice versa is much different than in August 2008.
A year ago the Rebels were a team that had not won a conference game the previous season. As it did with Lockett, the speed of the turnaround caught Nutt a little off guard.
“I’d not be telling the truth if I said I thought you guys would be here today asking me about a top 10 ranking,” Nutt said. “What our players have to realize now is they can’t live in the past. The journey is hard, and you either get better or you get worse.”
Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal