THREE THINGS WE KNOW
1. The offense will revolve around running, running, and more running.
This is not a surprise with Houston Nutt, ahem, running the show, but Ole Miss's offense will revolve around the running game to a large degree this fall. The top two quarterbacks battling for the job are Randall Mackey and West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti, guys who were rated by Rivals as the No. 11 and No. 3 dual-threat quarterbacks in their classes, respectively. The team returns everyone who had double-digit carries in 2010 except Jeremiah Masoli, whose production could be duplicated by Mackey or Brunetti. Brandon Bolden is the senior headliner of the running back rotation, joined by fellow senior Enrique Davis and up-and-comer Jeff Scott. To top it all off, Nutt went out and hired David Lee, the guy who helped develop Gus Malzahn's Wildcat offense at Arkansas and with the Miami Dolphins. Fellow new hire Gunter Brewer will help refine the passing game, but the Rebels will be running a lot in 2011.
2. The offensive line is big, and good.
Helping out that running scheme is the fact that Ole Miss has what looks like a big and talented offensive line. It all starts with the tackles Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie, who were named first- and second-team All-SEC by Phil Steele this year. In the middle, according to the post-spring depth chart, are Alex Washington, A.J. Hawkins, and Matt Hall, all of whom are 310 lbs or bigger. In fact, all of the O-line backups are above three bills as well. I wouldn't wish injury on anyone, but I wouldn't mind seeing backup RT Terrell Brown get some action on the field. He's only listed at 6'10", 376 lbs by the spring media guide.
3. Houston Nutt is not going anywhere.
If you can find a list of coaches on the hot seat, there's a decent chance you'll find Nutt on it somewhere. I think that's a bit of an overreaction to last year's disappointment, but losing to Jacksonville State will do that to a coach. I still think two Cotton Bowl wins give him some leeway, and he's landed three top-20 recruiting classes according to Rivals. Despite last year's flop, his .579 winning percentage in Oxford is ahead of the .518 winning percentage the program has had since 1970. Perhaps most importantly, Nutt has a buyout that's current $6 million that can't get below $4 million. Nutt should be feeling some pressure as his team was the only SEC West team to miss a bowl in 2010, but he's not going anywhere for a while.
THREE THINGS WE DON'T KNOW
1. Who the quarterback will be.
There was a while where it looked like Ole Miss was going to be in dire straits at quarterback this spring. When Nathan Stanley decided to transfer back in April, it left the Rebels with only Mackey and JUCO transfer Zack Stoudt. The latter chose Ole Miss after also taking official visits to such football power as Kansas and Wyoming. He also isn't mobile, which makes him less than ideal for what Nutt likes to do with his offense. The NCAA came through with a waiver for Brunetti to play this year though, as he transferred to be closer to his ailing mother. That was a big win for the program, even if he is a fourth quarterback (with Mackey, Stoudt, and incoming freshman Maikhail Miller) who hasn't played at all. Mackey was the leader for the position for most of spring, but Brunetti pulled ahead late. It remains to be seen whether Brunetti will be able to hold off Mackey for the job this fall.
2. Who will step up among the receivers.
Last season, Ole Miss had five guys catch at least 20 passes but none caught more than 30. Despite that parity in grabs, the clear leader was senior Markeith Summers. He averaged seven yards more per catch than the next guy, Melvin Harris. Another one of those top five was Bolden, a running back. To help the passing game improve, someone will need to step up to take over where Summers left off. Perhaps one candidate is freshman Nickolas Brassell, the second-highest rated recruit according to Rivals in the class. He chose to become a Rebel despite offers from Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State (who he committed to and decommitted from), Notre Dame, Tennessee, and USC. If he can come in and make an immediate impact, it will give the run-oriented offense some pop in the passing game too. The same goes for fellow four-star signees Donte Moncrief and Tobias Singleton.
3. What to expect out of the linebackers.
Ole Miss actually did something on National Signing Day that Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas all failed to do: sign a Rivals five-star prospect. The guy was C.J. Johnson, an inside linebacker out of Philadelphia, MS. He'll need to come in and be an impact player because the unit will miss D.T. Shackelford, the weakside backer who tore his ACL not too long ago. Shackelford led the team in sacks and was second in tackles for loss in 2010. It will also miss Jonathan Cornell, as he was the team's leader in total tackles and tackles for loss and trailed only Shackelford in sacks. How the unit turns out will be a big factor in how much the defense can improve in 2011.