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Micheal Spurlock feels reborn, but it's up to him to prove he can take more than the baby steps that never got the Ole Miss offense off the ground last season. He was anointed as Eli Manning's successor back in '03, and the offense was altered to take advantage of his athleticism -- the speed and running ability that Manning lacked -- but Spurlock sputtered once he took the reins.
He was replaced after two starts in '04 and was barely heard from again -- but with a new sheriff in town for the Rebels, he may have a second chance. David Cutcliffe was fired after a 4-7 season, his only losing campaign in six years at Ole Miss. Ed Orgeron was hired in mid-December and continued as assistant head coach/defensive line coach with national champion Southern Cal through the Orange Bowl.
Some of Orgeron's first public comments about his Ole Miss personnel came at his Signing Day press conference, when he reduced the quarterback derby to a two-man race between Spurlock and sophomore Robert Lane, casting Ethan Flatt, who started nine games last year, as a distant third choice. Spurlock was already running the first team when Lane was sidelined with a shoulder injury after a hit in a scrimmage midway through spring drills.
"I knew what I had to do to keep the job, and I didn't get it done," Spurlock said. "I didn't play well. You can call that freezing up or whatever. But I didn't think I had free rein to do what I pleased [in the offense]. You always had to be perfect. In order to play the position, sometimes you can't be perfect, you have to be comfortable."
For the second straight year, Spurlock will open the season as the Rebels' starting quarterback. The fifth-year senior brings speed and elusiveness to the position, but Spurlock struggled in his two starts last season and disappeared from the scene.
Orgeron is hoping Spurlock fares better in the new West Coast offense, designed to emphasize the quarterback's mobility with sprint-outs and quick releases.
If Spurlock stalls again at least Orgeron will have two experienced hands -- Flatt and Lane -- to turn to, something Cutcliffe didn't have.
The running back position could be a strength, but the backs will be operating behind an inexperienced offensive line. Junior tailback Jamal Pittman was a highly regarded signee whose career has yet to take off. His blend of speed and power -- with an improved attitude -- makes him a candidate for lots of carries. Sophomore Alan Abrams, now the backup after senior Vashon Pearson was ruled academically ineligible, gained valuable experience last year.
Larry Kendrick, a junior college All-American who never found a home last season, should have an impact catching balls out of the backfield.
The line is looking to replace three NFL Draft picks: center Chris Spencer and guards Doug Buckles and Marcus Johnson. Tackles Bobby Harris and Tre' Stallings are solid returning starters, but outside of them, center Tony Bonds, a reserve at guard and center last year, is the only returning player with notable playing time. Prep All-American Michael Oher is expected to compete for playing time at guard and possibly earn a starting job.
The receiving corps will be without the dependable hands of Bill Flowers, but the Rebels return three players who caught at least 15 passes in 2004. Mario Hill, a possession type, led the team with 36 receptions last year, getting many balls when Flowers was hurt.
McKinley Boykin and Michael Bozeman are two quality tackles in the 4-3, but depth could be a problem at the down spots. Playmaker Jayme Mitchell returns at one end, and the other side could be manned by redshirt freshman Chris Bowers.
Junior Patrick Willis is poised for an All-SEC season at middle linebacker and is flanked by Dontae Reed and converted safety Kelvin Robinson.
Cornerback Travis Johnson returns for his fourth year as a starter. His running mate, Trumaine McBride, will start for his second year on the other side. They like the 4-3 because it offers more zone coverage opportunities.
Replacing 2003 Groza Award-winning kicker Jonathan Nichols and dependable punter Cody Ridgeway will be a chore. Freshmen will compete for jobs in August.
As it was last year, it's all about the quarterback for Ole Miss. The Rebels desperately need some stability from this crucial position.
There is talent on the roster, and the schedule, while not easy, is manageable. The Rebels face a Memphis team that will have a quarterback making his first start, and Wyoming travels to Oxford. In SEC play, the Rebels drop South Carolina and pick up Kentucky. If Ole Miss wins its non-conference games, a winning season and bowl game are within reach.