After big fall, Mississippi tries to regroup

HOOVER, Ala. (AP) — Houston Nutt’s first two seasons at Mississippi were the program’s most successful in nearly 40 years.

The third was an epic disaster.

Now in his fourth year at Ole Miss, the veteran coach is trying to repair his program after a 4-8 season that included an embarrassing loss to Jacksonville State and a 1-7 record in the Southeastern Conference.

“It’s a very difficult road,” Nutt said. “But I know this: I know we’re on the right track. I believe it.”

Nutt is entering his 14th year of head coaching in the SEC, spending 10 years at Arkansas before coming to Ole Miss. During his time with the Razorbacks, Nutt was sometimes on the hot seat before responding with a good season.

Now with the Rebels, the critics are circling again. Not that his players can tell any difference.

“He hasn’t changed at all,” senior left tackle Bradley Sowell said. “Last year, a lot of people got on him about our season. But if you really look at it, a lot of it was our fault. We just weren’t executing.”

The rough season caused changes on the coaching staff. New offensive coordinator David Lee inherits an experienced offensive line and senior running back Brandon Bolden, who rushed for a team-high 976 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. But the quarterback job is unsettled with sophomore Barry Brunetti, junior Randall Mackey and junior Zack Stoudt competing for the job.

Nutt said Brunetti would start if the season opened this week, but that there wasn’t much separation. Brunetti, a transfer from West Virginia, is the only one of the three with Football Bowl Subdivision experience after limited playing time with the Mountaineers last season.

Brunetti and Mackey are dual-threat quarterbacks, while Stoudt has more of a classic drop-back style.

“I think we have a good situation,” Nutt said. “We’ve just got to find out who’s gonna stay away from the problems, the disasters, and who is going to take care of the ball and put this team in the end zone consistently.”

The Rebels’ defense was battered last season, giving up an SEC-worst 35.2 points per game. They received a big boost last spring when Kentrell Lockett received a medical waiver that gave him a sixth year of eligibility.

Lockett’s presence should help on the field and in the locker room. He was important piece of the Ole Miss defense when the program won back-to-back Cotton Bowls in 2008 and ‘09, and said the defense must get better.

“Everyone kind of understands now that bad things sometimes happen,” Lockett said. “Shutouts are so rare — somebody’s going to make a play and score a touchdown. It’s how you bounce back that matters.”

Nutt said he expects a quick turnaround, thanks to a strong recruiting class and better attitude.

Ole Miss’ troubles have been magnified by rival Mississippi State’s recent success. The Bulldogs have beaten Ole Miss two straight years in the Egg Bowl, and MSU coach Dan Mullen hasn’t hesitated to needle his rival when given an opportunity.

Recently, Mississippi State erected billboards along the major interstates close to state boarders, with a picture of Mullen and a message that says “Welcome to our State.”

Nutt wouldn’t be pulled into the rhetoric at SEC media days on Friday, though he said he understands the importance of the rivalry.

“Using valuable energy on something like that is a waste of time,” Nutt said. “You better be concentrating on recruiting, concentrating on winning and helping your players become a better person and a better football player.”

Nutt has had a reputation for having his best seasons when not much was expected from his team. If that’s the case, Ole Miss fans should be excited: The Rebels were picked to finish last in the SEC Western Division by the media.

“I love our attitude right now,” Nutt said. “I love their work ethic and the way they’re going about things. It’s a little bit different than last year.”