OXFORD – Brandon Bolden doesn’t believe he’s elevated himself ahead of last year’s starting tailback, even though his coach does.
The No. 1 tailback at Ole Miss, though, is really a wide receiver.
If it sounds confusing, there’s some simple logic that leads to understanding.
Dexter McCluster gets it done.
“Dex is going to get his carries. He’s the X factor. He does things out of the backfield most of us can’t do,” says senior Cordera Eason, who started 12 games at tailback last year when the Rebels had the No. 2 rushing offense in the SEC. “You can’t argue with putting Dex back there. We all respect that, because we know what he can do.”
Eason rushed for 647 yards last year, second on the team to McCluster, who rushed for 655.
On the current depth chart, McCluster is listed as the No. 1 flanker, but he’s spent the overwhelming majority of practice time this camp with the running backs.
McCluster adds another number to a position that is already deep with talent.
The crowded house now also includes freshman Tim Simon. Alabama’s Class 3A running back of the year, Simon was a standout linebacker as well.
It was long speculated that Simon’s college future would be on the defensive side of the ball. That may yet prove true, but Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt promised Simon a shot at running back, and in the early going he’s given Nutt second thoughts.
Nutt says he has no intention to move Simon to defense at this time.
Bolden, a sophomore, ran for 101 yards in the Cotton Bowl and surpassed Eason to leave spring drills as the No. 1 tailback on the depth chart, a position he continues to hold.
“I’m not going to say I’ve elevated past him,” Bolden said. “Cordera fuels me, and I fuel him. That’s the competition that all the running backs have.”
Nutt keeps the running backs attentive by pointing out that McCluster is not a 25-30 carries a game player. He’ll have many other responsibilities, most notably the “Wild Rebel” and some routes in the passing game.
McCluster had 109 rush attempts last year to Eason’s 140. Many of McCluster’s carries came after he took a shotgun snap and set in motion what became one of the Rebels’ most exciting plays.
McCluster had 1,280 all-purpose yards in 2008. He and Florida receiver Percy Harvin were the only two players to rank in the SEC’s top 10 in rushing yards, receiving yards, all-purpose yards and receptions.
It was mid-season last year when Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt moved McCluster to tailback, and much of the M.O. for the offense in the six-game win streak was to set tempo with the tiny (5-foot-6, 160) McCluster, then pound leg-weary defenses late in games with a bigger, stronger Eason.
“When it was time to eat the clock in the fourth quarter I had that extra wind. I feel like I closed out some games last year in that role,” Eason said.
Indeed, Eason (5-10, 224) ran for 351 yards in a four-game stretch from Arkansas to LSU and averaged 5.4 yards per carry along the way.
Unless Eason makes a move, it will be Bolden (5-11, 220) who hammers at defenses late in games.
“He has a combination of skills that we’re looking for. He’s a great receiver out of the backfield, he’ll block and protect, and he’s an effective runner. He had a great summer, and we feel like going into fall that he’s our No. 1 guy,” offensive coordinator Kent Austin said. “That being said, you know Houston’s going to roll running backs in and out.”
And even a wide receiver named McCluster.
“There’s no resentment. He’s here to help the team like we are. We have a lot of talented weapons and only one ball. We have to share it,” Bolden said. “It’s like kindergarten. You have to share everything.”
Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal