The 2011 Ole Miss football season officially opens September 3rd when Brigham Young University invades Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Unofficially, the season actually started the day after the 2010 Rebs were beaten by bowl-bound Mississippi State to end a disappointing, to put it mildly, 4-8 campaign.
On that Sunday, Ole Miss Coach Houston Nutt had an emphatic, heart-to-heart meeting with the returning players on his team.
It was not a friendly, pat-on-the-back session. It was brutal truth. You want to know why the season turned as sour as green apples? Here's why. No punches were pulled, no holds barred, no feelings spared and blame was spread evenly throughout the room, from coaches to players and all points in between.
Old-fashioned fire and brimstone, football style.
Phase I – Head Straightening:
Since that day, the Rebel players have mentioned many times since that Nutt's approach was eye-opening, to say the least. Some have said the reality of his words made the blood drain from their faces and their hearts quiver because they knew he was telling them nothing but the cold, hard truth.
"He came down pretty hard on us," said senior Cornerback Marcus Temple. "We deserved every word of it. He also asked us if we were willing to pay the price to get better and turn things around. Coach Nutt let us know it wasn't going to be easy, that things were about to get a lot harder and whoever didn't want to make the commitment was free to leave. We all stayed."
Nutt remembers that day like it was yesterday, not nearly nine months ago.
"That room was sullen and it should have been," said Houston. "Everyone in that room was unhappy and disappointed. None of us got the job done – not one single person in there. That needed to be said and it needed to be said in certain terms. I didn't pull any punches."
Nutt promised the troops things were going to change.
There would be no more attitude and behavioral problems tolerated. In country boy verbiage, it was his way or the highway, and his way was not going to be a tiptoe through the tulips.
"I told them we were going to correct the mess we created and we were going to do it the only way it could be done – the hard way, all hands on board," Nutt continued. "We had a very poor summer a year ago and our chemistry never was real good, it was just off, for whatever reasons.
"We were going to start with getting everyone's heads straight, everyone being on the same page and going in the same direction."
A buddy system was instituted to promote accountability. Players were paired up and if one slacked, both had consequences, and it ranged from class attendance, to slacking in workouts to off-the-field problems.
Phase II – Offseason Demands:
As soon as second semester classes began in mid-January, so did the offseason workouts.
Brother, did they.
Strength & Conditioning Coach Don Decker, under the direct orders from Nutt, put his foot on the offseason accelerator and never let up while preparing the Rebs for spring training, scheduled from mid-March to mid-April.
The players discussed the severity of the workouts, but they did not complain. They had pledged to do whatever it took and that's what they did.
As a result, over 20 Rebels made the Iron Rebel poster for excellence in the offseason program, more than doubling the number who made it the year before.
"I was on the road recruiting for the first two weeks, but Coach Decker kept giving me progress reports," said Nutt. "I could tell they were giving us what we asked and demanded of them."
The off-the-field issues that had plagued the team during the season also disappeared. Very few players landed outside the "circle of trust" and the buddy system was paying dividends.
Phase III – Spring Training:
Despite there being some depth issues on the squad, Nutt promised spring would be more physical. His 2010 team, uncharacteristically, was not as tough as he was accustomed to. They weren't as physical as he was used to mentoring. They weren't as strong mentally.
Spring training would be used to restore those lacking ingredients.
In the meantime, Nutt had brought in three new, no-nonsense assistant coaches – Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach David Lee, Wide Receivers Coach Gunter Brewer and Secondary Coach Keith Burns.
Houston had declared when last season ended that he would give up play-calling if he could hire the right OC. He was fortunate to have been able to talk Lee into coming to Ole Miss for several reasons. Lee is not only a highly-respected, successful offensive coach, he's a guy Nutt has worked with, had success with in the past and trusts. Nutt was not going to turn the offense over to anyone who walked through the door, but Lee fit exactly what he was looking for.
Nutt had also worked with Burns at Arkansas. Keith was his defensive coordinator for a couple of years with the Hogs before Burns took over the Tulsa program as the head man. Known for his high-energy, no excuses approach, Burns was bound to put a charge into a defense that, frankly, faltered badly in 2010.
As for Brewer, Nutt had kept an eye on Billy Brewer's youngest son for several years at Oklahoma State and knew he wanted Brewer on his staff. Brewer had coached Randy Moss, Dez Bryant and other collegiate greats in his career and is recognized as a dynamic recruiter by his peers.
With a revamped staff in place, Nutt and company went to work in spring drills.
From a football standpoint, it wasn't always pretty, but there were some things surfacing that made the head man smile.
"You could see more leadership surfacing, a better attitude about the game, and a lot more unity," Nutt noted. "We didn't always execute the way I wanted us to, and we left spring with some question marks, but I could tell we were getting some things back we lost last season.
"It was obvious to me the players were trying to do everything we asked of them and, as a result, they improved little by little. I said at the end of spring that we weren't a finished product – we still had some issues to resolve from a personnel and execution standpoint. There were still some jobs up for grabs, but we were going in the right direction, which is one of the main things we wanted to accomplish."
Spring was not perfect, however. The defense had a major setback when Outside Linebacker D.T. Shackelford, the unquestioned leader of not only that side of the ball, but the whole team, went down with a knee injury that will cost him the 2011 season.
"That was a big blow to us, but I think because of the offseason commitment the team had made, we had built some inner strength that wasn't totally dependent on one player," Nutt said. "Toward the end of spring, after D.T.'s injury, we started seeing other players step up in the leadership department. I think what D.T. was doing rubbed off on them. I think he was contagious in some respects."
Spring training left some question marks, but when all was said and done, this was not a mopey team. This was not a downtrodden bunch. This was a team that was starting to get its stinger back and starting to show some swagger.
Phase IV – Summer Sweat:
Decker put the hammer down in the first offseason session prior to spring training and he and his staff didn't let off in the summer.
But something pretty cool started taking place. The players started seeing and feeling results from their extra work. Seeing those results motivated them even more and pushed them even further.
Declarations of being bigger, stronger and faster were accompanied with comments of the team being "closer than ever, more united than ever."
The examples of summer success are too numerous to list individually, but casually eyeballing the players is like a before-and-after ad for fitness equipment.
A lot of solid weight has been added to a lot of players and a lot of "baby fat" has been converted to muscle. Though still on the young side, based on the short supply of seniors on the team, these Rebels are starting to have an SEC "look" to them.
Granted, some of it has to do with the way the strength staff drove them, but an equally important ingredient is that the players bought in and have sacrificed. As they started seeing gains, they sacrificed and committed themselves more and more.
Before you knew it, WR Melvin Harris
was wearing a tank top to show off his bigger shoulders and arms at 210 pounds, instead of the 185 he came here carrying. Safety Damien Jackson
looks more like a linebacker than a safety at 214 pounds and showing an upper body that will allow his physical style to hold up. TE Ferbia Allen
, long unable to hold over 235-240 pounds, is now nearing the 250 plateau that he has been aching for since he's been at Ole Miss. Matt Hall is now 6-10, 350 and if you can find much body fat, good luck. And the list goes on. . . and on. . . and on.
"I can look at the guys and tell they have paid the price since January and I can talk to them and tell they have a much better attitude about everything," Nutt declared without a hint of hesitation.
The first fall practice is Saturday, August 6th. In tomorrow's offering, Nutt discusses what has to happen in August for the Rebels to get it done during the season.
In Part I of this two-part series, Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt sheds some light on what the Rebels have done in the past nine months to get ready for the season. In Part II tomorrow, he gives some thoughts on what has to happen in August for the Rebels to be successful.