Kicking it with Houston Nutt, Part I

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

OXFORD, Miss. -- The expectations for Ole Miss' football team this season have reached celestial proportions, and that's putting it mildly.

The Rebels will start the season ranked in the top 10 nationally and are one of the favorites along with Alabama and LSU in the Western Division race.

Spend a little time on The Square in downtown Oxford, and the anticipation is as thick as the accents are in these parts.

"I know the fans are hungry, but we are, too," Ole Miss senior running back/receiver Dexter McCluster said. "We can't wait for the season to get here."

To fully appreciate what second-year coach Houston Nutt and the Rebels are trying to accomplish, a brief history lesson is probably in order.

  • The last time the Rebels won eight or more games in back-to-back seasons was 1989 and 1990.

  • The last time they won nine or more games in back-to-back seasons was 1961 and 1962.

  • The last time they won an SEC championship was 1963.

  • The last time they beat chief rivals Alabama, LSU and Mississippi State all in the same season was ... never.

  • Only three times since the SEC expanded and split into two divisions in 1992 have the Rebels finished with a winning conference record.

  • They're the only team in the Western Division that has not played in the SEC championship game.

So, in other words, history's squarely against Nutt and his Rebels this season as they attempt to make a great college town a great college football town once again.

Here's Part I of my Q&A with Nutt:

Your players say the soaring expectations and all the publicity the program has received the last several months has only spiced up preseason camp. Has it been even more intense?

Houston Nutt: Our antennas have been up, because you look around and see our guys on the cover of Sports Illustrated. There's a lot of talk and a lot of attention, but we're going to have to have that same work ethic as last year, if not more. I've been proud of our seniors. They've taken this group, and there's been more intensity. Hopefully, we can keep it up these next two weeks.

Have you been able to create the kind of competition across the board that you want to at different positions?

HN: Defensive line is one group that was recruited very well here. That's been really good. We're not there in the offensive line. In fact, it's probably the opposite. The offensive line is very thin. We have to get our numbers right there. The secondary is the same way. There are some holes and you take away three scholarships next year [because of low APR scores], and that's our problem. Every coach is trying to balance each position, and the toughest is the offensive line and defensive line, keeping those numbers where they need to be. We lose a lot of players after this year and will be very, very thin in the spring. Our work's cut out for us. But right now, with what we have, you feel good because of the competition in practice.

How's it shaking out at left tackle where you lost a great player in Michael Oher?

HN: It's been my biggest concern ever since the Cotton Bowl. We lose the entire left side. You can feel that presence gone because of that left side being protected, and [Oher] was so athletic. Bradley Sowell is having a good camp, but is not quite as strong as Michael and is feeling his way around a little bit, especially when they're bringing the heat. That's going to come with experience. He and [freshman] Bobby Massie are over there, so you've got some young guys who've never played.

Is freshman receiver Pat Patterson one of those guys who has lived up to the recruiting hype?

HN: He's been everything and more, going up against DBs and being physical. He's special. Because of his strength at his age and the ability to go up and time the ball while he's covered, there will be a spot for him in that rotation.

How much more will you be able to do with Jevan Snead this season now that he's gone through an entire season in the SEC and knows the system inside and out?

HN: You could do much more with him. Our problem is protecting him, so we've got to be careful there. He can do it. He can handle it. We could add more things to the playbook and get creative. But what's important is that our left tackle and left guard get it. John Jerry at right tackle is one of the best in the country. He's down to 330 and moving well. So it's not so much what Jevan can do. It's what we all can do, and that starts with protection.

Are we going to see senior defensive end Greg Hardy, coming off foot surgery, as close to 100 percent physically, mentally and emotionally this season as we've seen him at Ole Miss?

HN: He's the best I've ever seen him mentally. He got a haircut, hasn't missed meeting. This guy, knock on wood, has been exactly what you want in a senior, and he's taken the freshmen and tried to nurture them and be a mentor. I've just really been proud of his attitude. It used to be, 'Hey, Greg, we've got a 9 o'clock special teams meeting. Let's eat breakfast and get going.' It was a challenge getting him headed in the right direction. This year, from the weight room and even coming off surgery and all offseason, he's been much more than I expected. I thought he'd just go through a few individual drills to start practice, but he's been through everything and wants more. I told him to make sure he's right. He just got out of the boot, but he's running beautifully.

For this program to really take off and build off last season, what is critical?

HN: To follow up last year with another bowl, a pretty good bowl game, because you're going to need it in recruiting. We had a couple guys come in and talk about what happened the last time they went to the Cotton Bowl and only won four games that next year. We've got to get off that rollercoaster ride and go back-to-back-to-back. Our recruiting class this year, we were ranked high. But when you get out there and watch them for a week, you say, 'Man, you put another class together like we had this year, and you've got a chance. You can be special. You can get this thing going.'

Has the hype surrounding your team and the way expectations have soared heading into this season been a bit much?

HN: It probably has. But what do you do? I can't control it. The only thing I can try to control is the attitude of our players and how they go about it. I can't control Sports Illustrated and ESPN and all the attention. The only thing I can do is say, 'We've got to work harder.'