August 6, 2011 10:04:00 PM
OXFORD -- University of Mississippi football coach Houston Nutt has raved constantly about his incoming freshman class, saying it''s one of the most talented groups he has had in 14 years of coaching in the Southeastern Conference.
It better be because it appears he''ll have to use it immediately.
The Rebels went through their first preseason practice Saturday evening, with several freshmen receiving ample playing time with the starters or second team. The practice was indoors because of the threat of thunderstorms in the area.
"I love (the freshmen) even more today than I did on signing day," said Nutt, who is entering his fourth season at Ole Miss.
Nutt and the Rebels enter the season under pressure to win after going 4-8 in a 2010 season that included an embarrassing loss to Football Championship Subdivision opponent Jacksonville State and a second-straight drubbing at the hands of Mississippi State.
Nutt''s first two seasons in Oxford produced a combined 18 wins and two Cotton Bowl wins. But most of that success was forgotten after such a difficult time last season.
To pull out of that hole, it appears Ole Miss will count on several true freshmen. Linebacker C.J. Johnson, cornerbacks Senquez Golson and Chief Brown, tight end Jamal Mosley and receivers Donte Moncrief and Nick Brassell received most of Nutt''s praise Friday. Nutt has said Brassell could play both ways as he tries to build depth in the secondary.
The 6-foot-2, 235-pound Johnson was the jewel of Nutt''s recruiting class last February, ranked as a five-star recruit by Rivals.com. His quick development became even more important after junior D.T. Shackelford went down with a season-ending knee injury during the spring.
Nutt admitted it was rare for him to count on so many young players so quickly.
"Most years you''ll have one, two or three guys you put out there right away and see what they can do," Nutt said. "But I''ve never had this many, where it''s nine, 10 or 11 guys."
The Rebels also have a three-man quarterback race to settle over the next month. Sophomore Barry Brunetti was the first-team quarterback during the first practice, but Nutt said juniors Randall Mackey and Zack Stoudt will also have an opportunity to win the job.
Brunetti is the only one of the group with experience at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, playing sparingly as a backup at West Virginia in 2010 before transferring to Ole Miss in the offseason.
"They were a little off early, but they came on with some good throws at the end," Nutt said.
Ole Miss is also trying to mix and match players on a revamped defense that hopes to be much better than last season''s group, which gave up an SEC-worst 35.2 points per game.
A few veterans return, including defensive end Kentrell Lockett, linebacker Joel Kight and cornerback Marcus Temple. But once again, the Rebels are using several inexperienced players, including defensive tackles Bryon Bennett and Carlton Martin, who are redshirt freshmen.
"We had a lot of energy today," Nutt said. "The key for us is to keep it going."
The strength of the team appears to be on the offensive line, which returns all five starters including left tackle Bradley Sowell. There are nine returning linemen who made at least one start last season.
On Saturday, Nutt wasn''t concerned about his veterans. Instead, he wanted to see the freshmen. And at least for the first day, he left impressed.
"We''re going to put them right in the middle of things and find out in a hurry what they can do," Nutt said.
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