By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – Five, six, eight, 11, 12, 14 and 16 are numbers that are creating a lot of attention for Ole Miss football.
The most important numbers, however, may be 5:30.
Rebels coach Houston Nutt says what goes on in those 5:30 a.m. meetings and workouts may determine if the other numbers – early preseason national rankings for Ole Miss from various media outlets – really matter. Some of the rankings were published immediately after the 2008 season.
The Rebels won their last six games in 2008, thrashed rival LSU in Baton Rouge and No. 7 Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. Ole Miss won its four November games by a count of 152-20.
Most of the key playmakers are back as the Rebels begin spring football drills Friday. The workouts, not spread out as in seasons past, will conclude with the “Grove Bowl,” the annual spring intrasquad game, on April 18.
Players believe they can handle the weight of expectations and that the buzz around the program will not be a distraction.
“I think we’ll handle it well. When the odds were against us last year we handled that,” senior wide receiver-tailback Dexter McCluster said. “We’ll just keep working hard and doing what we’re doing. It feels good to have this quick turnaround from the Cotton Bowl and get back on the field for spring football.”
From a 9-4 season in which it finished ranked No. 14 in the AP Top 25, Ole Miss returns six starters on offense, eight on defense and many more who made key plays behind the 2008 regulars.
What the Rebels don’t return is a great deal of offensive line experience. That’s why the signing of heralded prep school standout Bobbie Massie was so important in February.
Nutt hopes to use this spring to cultivate offensive line depth from some program veterans who haven’t spent much time on the field.
The pre-spring depth chart lists third-year sophomore Bradley Sowell – who played some tight end last year – as the starter at left tackle. Third-year sophomore Alex Washington is his backup.
The left guard is sophomore Rishaw Johnson, with senior Brandon Green as the backup.
There’s experience among the starters on the right side with Reid Neely at guard and John Jerry at tackle. Again, depth is key with junior Don Mosley behind Neely and mid-term junior college transfer Logan Clair behind Jerry.
Green has pre-Ole Miss experience at both guards and center.
The steadiest offensive lineman this spring may be senior center Daverin Geralds.
“This is one of our weakest parts as far as depth, and it’s why it was so important that we get those guys we got in the fall. They’ll be involved in that depth,” Nutt said.
Teams that finish the way Ole Miss appears to be starting – as a solid top 15 team, perhaps a top 10 team – have the depth that allows them to weather injuries along the way.
Nutt believes he has quality depth at most other positions.
Junior end Kentrell Lockett is part of a much deeper line on the defensive side.
He believes the Rebels will successfully answer questions of depth.
That will be one part of the equation in successfully handling the high expectations.
“The rankings are good just to say we’re nationally known and a force to be reckoned with,” Lockett said. “But we need to uphold that. We can’t just be a one-season wonder and have a flop season. We don’t think we will, but we know we have to play to uphold that status.”