OXFORD – After an SEC-opening setback that dropped Ole Miss 17 spots in the national rankings, the Rebels are still thinking big.
But in moving forward, their best move may be to play small.
Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt took some heat after a 16-10 loss at South Carolina for not getting little Dexter McCluster involved sooner.
The Rebels’ best chance for a big play every time he touches the ball, McCluster (5-9, 170) had touched it only four times going into the fourth quarter. They were all rushes, netting 14 yards. The Gamecocks made sure they tracked McCluster and usually had two defenders on watch.
You can do that when he’s lined up at receiver. When he’s at tailback, it’s a different thing.
The Ole Miss offense showed life in the fourth quarter when McCluster was the back, and Jevan Snead pitched it to him on just about every play. He ran for 71 yards on 11 carries in the final period. It was a spark that came too late.
On Monday, Nutt was coy about how he’ll use McCluster on Saturday at Vanderbilt.
“I’d like to hold onto that,” he said. “He’ll play all those positions. It will depend on the flow of the game and how we’re executing.”
Last year’s success coincided with Nutt using McCluster at tailback. It was thought an odd move at the time for a player who was struggling to hold the football, but it seemed to help McCluster to grab the ball and go and not be burdened with making a catch and trying to make a move simultaneously.
Nutt would go with McCluster’s speed at the start and would then pound weary defenses with a bigger back, Cordera Eason.
Last week prior to the South Carolina game Nutt got freshman tailback Rodney Scott more involved.
Scott, with a McCluster-type physique, got some practice reps with the first offense, though he carried just once in the game.
With the issues the Rebels are experiencing on the offensive line, the small, quick “scatback” might be just the pick-me-up needed.
A back who hits the hole as quickly as McCluster takes pressure off the linemen. The little guys get through little holes. They don’t require linemen to hold blocks as long, and they don’t need them to push 300-pound tackles 3 yards off the ball.
Line me up, coach
While Nutt is coy with how McCluster will be used, McCluster isn’t coy with how he’d like to be used.
“I would like to line up back there a little more,” he said.
Through three games, McCluster has scored two touchdowns and is averaging 82.7 all-purpose yards. He feels the need to contribute at a higher level.
His fourth-quarter burst was a reminder of how things were last year and how he’s eager for them to be again.
“Honestly, I was in a zone. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in that zone where I block everything out, don’t really see anything but the hole and I hit it,” he said. “I’ve played (tailback) all my life. Being my size a lot of people have been skeptical about putting me back there, but when they put me back there, things happen, and that’s what I want to do. I want to be that playmaker that can make things happen.”
Parrish Alford (email@example.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.
Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal