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March 26, 2011

Ole Miss searches for QB, wins

For Ole Miss, this spring is all about getting back on track and proving that its 4-8 record in 2010 was an aberration. Houston Nutt is looking to rediscover the 9-4 form of his first two seasons in Oxford, when each season was capped by a Cotton Bowl victory.

There can be no backsliding in a division that features the past two national champions (Auburn and Alabama) and a team that won a BCS crown after the 2007 season (LSU). In addition, archrival Mississippi State is a rising program that has toppled Ole Miss in each of the past two seasons.

The battle at quarterback to replace Jeremiah Masoli will be the focus of the spring. Will it be Nathan Stanley or Randall Mackey? West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti still is awaiting word on a waiver request that will allow him to play immediately.

An added dimension to the uncertainty at quarterback is that Ole Miss will break in a new offensive coordinator. David Lee was hired with the express intent of juicing up the passing attack. Lee, who takes over for Dave Rader (fired) and Mike Markuson (remains as line coach), is a veteran hand who had been quarterback coach with the Miami Dolphins. He should blend in quickly: Lee twice served on Nutt's staffs at Arkansas.

The defense has even more issues than the offense, making this a critical spring as Nutt readies to enter his fourth season with the Rebels.

Here's a look at Ole Miss as it prepares to begin spring drills.

Houston Nutt has some new coaches to help him try to get Ole Miss competitive in the SEC West.
Coach: Houston Nutt
Last season: 4-8 overall, 1-7 in the SEC West.
Spring dates: March 28-April 16.
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (6): TE Ferbia Allen, RB Brandon Bolden, C A.J. Hawkins, T Bobbie Massie, T Bradley Sowell, G Alex Washington.
Defense (3): FS Damien Jackson, LB Joel Kight, CB Marcus Temple.
Special teams (2): P Tyler Campbell, K Bryson Rose.
Positions of strength

The offensive line has the potential to be among the best in the SEC. Four full-time starters return; in addition, five others who started at least once last season are back from a unit that helped Ole Miss lead the SEC in fewest sacks allowed and rank third in rushing (207.6 ypg). This deep group will escort a strong corps of running backs led by Brandon Bolden. He ran for 976 yards and 14 TDs, ranking fifth in the SEC in rushing (81.3 ypg). Bolden, who also paced the squad in receptions with 32, has a chance to become the school's leading career rusher. RBs Enrique Davis and Jeff Scott are able backups, with Scott possessing excellent speed. Despite losing two starters, linebacker could be a strong spot. D.T. Shackelford finished 13th among SEC players with five sacks playing end and linebacker. Joel Kight started seven games on the weakside last season, while true freshman Mike Marry showed potential as a reserve. C.J. Johnson, a U.S. Army All-American and the state's top-ranked player, joins the mix in August. Tyler Campbell led the nation in punting with a 46.4-yard average, while K Bryson Rose ranked third in the SEC with an 88.9 field-goal percentage (16-of-18).

Help is needed

The search is on for a new quarterback. Jeremiah Masoli could make plays, ranking seventh in the SEC in total offense (215.3 ypg). Nathan Stanley, a junior, may be the favorite. He started one game last season and played in four others, throwing for 261 yards with three TDs and an interception. Others in the mix are Randall Mackey and Zack Stoudt, and West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti is hoping for a waiver to become eligible immediately. He may be the best of the bunch. The search also is on for wide receivers. Are there any playmakers on the roster? That a running back led the Rebels in receiving in 2010 tells you all you need to know about the state of the receiving corps last season. Melvin Harris (30 catches) and Ja-Mes Logan (29) are back, but each needs work. The defense has issues. Keep an eye on the thin ranks at cornerback. Charles Sawyer has promise, while speedy JC transfer Wesley Pendleton needs to help now. Marcus Temple will miss the spring recovering from a sports hernia. The interior of the line needs refortification with Ts Jerrell Powe, Ted Laurent, LaMark Armour and Lawon Scott gone. Another unknown: Will E Kentrell Lockett be granted a sixth season of eligibility? He was lost for the year with a knee injury suffered against Fresno State. While waiting on his appeal, Lockett won't take part in spring drills as he recovers from ACL surgery.

3 guys to watch

LB Mike Marry: He played behind two seniors as a true freshman in 2010 and had 22 tackles and three tackles for loss. Marry (6-2/237) has good size and is a sideline-to-sideline speedster who likes to hit.

WR Vincent Sanders: He was the offensive prize of the 2010 signing class, arriving as the top-rated player in Mississippi. Sanders redshirted last season and must step forward for a receiving corps that is in desperate need of playmakers.

CB Charles Sawyer: Despite playing behind two upperclassmen last season, Sawyer tied for the team lead in interceptions with two while posting 49 tackles as a redshirt freshman. Sawyer, who has All-SEC potential, has a knack for man-to-man coverage and is improving at playing the ball in the air.

The pressure is on

WR Melvin Harris: He was solid last season as a sophomore, when he caught 30 passes for 408 yards and three scores. But he needs to do more. Harris (6-7/205) is a freakish athlete and mismatch waiting to happen. But he needs to become more consistent. He needs to show that consistency this spring, which could be difficult considering the quarterback situation.

The buzz

Ole Miss has the potential to get back into the bowl business, but it has some big issues to address at quarterback, receiver, along the defensive line and in the secondary. The altered staff needs to develop chemistry. New offensive coordinator David Lee will assume play-calling duties from Nutt. New passing game coordinator/receivers coach Gunter Brewer, who arrives from Oklahoma State, will play a big role in developing the aerial attack. His dad, Billy, is a former Ole Miss head coach. Keith Burns was hired from Kansas State to coach the secondary. Add it all up, and it will be a busy spring for Nutt and Ole Miss.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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