Rebels get on the road to toughness

OXFORD – The road to recovery for Ole Miss football has not been smooth and free of construction.
It’s been an offseason road of rough pavement, bumps and grinds.
But it’s been the best course to work the Rebels back from a 4-8 season, Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said, and the journey took another turn Monday with the beginning of spring drills.
Beginning with Monday’s first practice, the Rebels will work 15 times over the next three weeks, each day except Wednesdays and Sundays.
“We put them through it, as far as the investment we wanted, the sacrifice and work ethic. That’s where you build your team,” Nutt said. “This has been probably one of the most difficult of off-seasons we’ve put them through in a long time.”
Nutt said his off-season program between 2009, when the Rebels went 9-4 and won the Cotton Bowl, and 2010 was not what he wanted it to be.
At Monday’s pre-spring press conference he used the word “tough” or some variation of it repeatedly.
He equated a lack of toughness to not finishing strong in some games last year.
“They have to go farther than they think they can, and it’s up to us to get them to that point,” Nutt said.
A lack of toughness was also evident in poor tackling, which led to big plays allowed by the defense and ultimately the Rebels’ struggles on that side of the ball.
In the off-season Nutt added Keith Burns to his staff as secondary coach, replacing Kim Dameron.
For Nutt’s first three seasons at Ole Miss, Dameron coached safeties, while Chris Vaughn coached the cornerbacks.
Monday, Nutt clarified roles in the secondary, saying Burns will coach the cornerbacks, Vaughn the safeties.
The Rebels gave up 246.33 passing yards a game in 2010, 11th in the SEC. They ranked last in the SEC and 109 out of 120 Division I teams in pass defense efficiency with a 151.03 rating and had fewer interceptions, six, than any team in the league.
Toughness, it appears, is part of Burns’ “MO.” He says he’s a strong proponent of press coverage from his cornerbacks.
“People who know me know I like to pressure, to bump and run, to press at the line of scrimmage. Passing games nowadays are too good with all the rules changes, the way the game is played with no huddle and spread offenses. The passing game, primarily is about the timing component. When you’re off in cushion, you’re rarely going to disrupt timing,” he said.
Nutt made team speed a focus of his recruiting. Some of that speed won’t be available until February signees report in August, but Burns says he sees enough speed among his returning players to compete and win.
The Rebels will be thin at cornerback in the spring. They return one starter, Marcus Temple, and he’ll miss spring drills recovering from sports hernia surgery.
The cornerbacks getting the most reps in the coming days will be third-year sophomore Charles Sawyer, redshirt freshman Cliff Coleman and junior college transfer Wesley Pendleton.
In other news:
– Nutt said he expected to scrimmage more than he would usually during spring drills in order to get as many snaps as possible for his four quarterbacks vying for the starting role: Junior Nathan Stanley, redshirt freshman Randall Mackey, junior college transfer Zack Stoudt and sophomore Barry Brunetti, who must be granted an NCAA waiver to be able to compete in 2011.
– Nutt said he was uncertain if tight end Zaccheus Mason, a third-year sophomore, will go through spring drills. Mason has expressed interested in playing basketball, though it’s unclear if that means basketball at Ole Miss or somewhere else. Basketball coach Andy Kennedy says he’s not had any conversations with Mason, who did not attend Monday’s practice.
– Nutt said he hopes to hear something “soon” on whether defensive end Kentrell Lockett will be granted a sixth season of eligibility. The school must show that Lockett was unable to compete for most of the 2010 and 2006 seasons. The paper work for Brunetti has been submitted. The West Virginia transfer is asking the NCAA for a waiver of its requirement that all transfers sit out the first season at their new schools.

Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600 or

Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal

Click video to hear audio