COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2011 PRESEASON TOP 25
SEC West PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Hugh Freeze, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Matt Luke, Dan Werner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Wesley McGriff, Dave Wommack
New Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze looks to lead Rebels back to bowl game in his first season in Oxford.
Neither Barry Brunetti — one of three returning quarterbacks to start games last year — nor junior college transfer Bo Wallace won the job in the spring. The competition continues, and new coach Hugh Freeze says he’s considering playing two quarterbacks, though it’s not his preference.
“That battle will go into fall camp, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we go into the first few games playing both of those quarterbacks,” he says.
Brunetti is a better running threat, but in the spring Wallace did a better job of involving the playmakers at wide receiver.
The Rebels were able to develop depth at receiver in the spring, more than at many other positions. Sophomore Donte Moncrief returns after leading the team in receptions (31), yards (454) and touchdown catches (four) a year ago. Junior Ja-Mes Logan impressed the new staff and is poised for his best season. The key to this group could be converted quarterback Randall Mackey, a gifted athlete who will line up in the slot and at running back, as well as serving as the third quarterback.
Depth is not as solid at running back. Jeff Scott is a returning starter. He’s capable of producing big plays, more on the edge than inside. There’s very little experience behind him, and freshmen will have a chance to play early.
Freeze settled on five offensive line starters in the spring, but the quest for quality depth continues. The line is still working to get comfortable with Freeze’s up-tempo system.
In a telling statement of the rebuilding job ahead, defensive coordinator Dave Wommack says he has “five or six guys I feel can really help us win in the SEC.” Among those is safety Charles Sawyer, who has also played corner and led the team last year with four interceptions.
Cornerback Wesley Pendleton was named spring’s Outstanding Defensive Player, but Nick Brassell decided to transfer, dealing the secondary a tough blow.
Wommack likes the potential of his defensive tackles, though Uriah Grant is coming off spring shoulder surgery and Bryon Bennett missed much of spring drills in a walking boot.
The Rebels are looking for playmakers off the edge, and one is expected to be sophomore C.J. Johnson, a converted linebacker who recorded 32 tackles last year. Freshman Channing Ward is a candidate for early playing time at end.
The Rebels’ most experience is at punter and kicker. Senior Tyler Campbell led the nation two years ago with a 46.4-yard average. He averaged 43.6 yards last year and had 28 punts downed inside the 20. Kicker Bryson Rose has hit 25-of-29 career field goal attempts and showed improved leg strength in the spring game when he connected from 50 yards. Scott is one of the top punt returners in the SEC.
Talent is thin, depth is a concern, and academic issues leave a number of unknowns heading into the fall. Freeze has taken a strong disciplinary stance and has praised his players for their attitude and effort.
With a nonconference schedule that includes Texas and an SEC slate that includes, well, the SEC, this is not the season to expect a return to a bowl game. The Rebels need to find a way to win nonconference games against Central Arkansas, Tulane and UTEP, then focus on being competitive in the league and picking off a game, perhaps two, to end a 14-game SEC losing streak.
Those are realistic goals.