OXFORD, Miss. — During Houston Nutt's 14-year coaching career in the Southeastern Conference, he's been known to turn a team with low expectations into one of the Southeastern Conference's best.
Maybe that's a good thing for Mississippi. Few expect the Rebels to compete in what looks like a loaded SEC Western Division.
"That doesn't bother me," Nutt said. "I don't worry about that. I like the position. Again, it's about what you do on the field in between those lines. You just want a team to play with an unbelievable amount of passion and spirit ... I love our attitude right now."
Nutt's three years at Ole Miss have produced some spectacular highs and lows. The Rebels won back-to-back Cotton Bowls in 2008 and '09, winning a combined 18 games for the program's best two-year stretch in 40 years.
But the program's fall last season was equally dramatic. The Rebels finished with a 4-8 record and a 1-7 mark in the SEC, punctuated by losses to Football Championship Subdivision program Jacksonville State and a second-straight loss to rival Mississippi State.
Now in his fourth season, the Rebels are looking for improvement and stability.
"Nobody wants to go through what happened last year again," junior linebacker Joel Kight said. "It wasn't fun. But we feel like we've got the guys to turn this around quickly."
During the preseason's early practices, it's become obvious Ole Miss will rely on several true freshmen. Receivers Nickolas Brassell, Donte Moncrief and Tobias Singleton could all have prominent roles immediately. Nutt is also high on linebacker C.J. Johnson and cornerbacks Chief Brown and Senquez Golson.
All six freshmen are from Mississippi.
"We went back to square one and started with recruiting," Nutt said. "Felt like we got a lot of momentum. Got the best players out of Mississippi."
Ole Miss returns nine starters on offense, including the entire offensive line. Left tackle is anchored by 6-foot-7, 315-pound senior Bradley Sowell, who enters his third season as the starter.
The team's three top running backs from a year ago — Brandon Bolden, Jeff Scott and Enrique Davis — also return. Bolden, a 5-foot-11, 221-pound senior, has been a constant in the backfield for three seasons, and rushed for 976 yards and 14 touchdowns last season.
"We want to be a physical football team," Nutt said. "We have a big, outstanding g offensive line. I want them to continue to get better, get better chemistry, be better blockers."
Nutt still hasn't settled on a starting quarterback. He's said a three-man position battle between sophomore Barry Brunetti and juniors Randall Mackey and Zack Stoudt could last most of August. The coaches have indicated Brunetti, a 6-foot-0, 213-pound transfer from West Virginia, has a slight edge in the race.
"He's really had command of the huddle the first two days and I think he's throwing much better," Nutt said. "But he knows he'll have competition and to me that's a coach's best friend,
Brunetti and Mackey, a 5-foot-11, 195-pounder who redshirted last season after transferring from junior college, are both dual-threat quarterbacks who are just as comfortable running as throwing. At 6-foot-4 and 222 pounds, Stoudt is more of a pro-style quarterback who likes to stay in the pocket and use his strong arm to deliver passes downfield.
They've been working with new offensive coordinator David Lee, a veteran coach who was with the NFL's Miami Dolphins the past three seasons working with the quarterbacks.
"Especially with these freshmen coming in, we feel like we've got more bullets to use," Lee said. "We can't ask any of our quarterbacks to be perfect because none of them have much game experience. But we do have to avoid disasters."
The Ole Miss defense returns five starters, including sixth-year senior Kentrell Lockett. The 6-foot-5, 248-pound Lockett should give the Rebels some needed experience. He had 10 tackles for a loss and five sacks in 2009, but missed most of last season with a knee injury.
Unlike the last few seasons, when the Rebels' defense produced NFL draft picks like Peria Jerry, Kendrick Lewis and Jerrell Powe, this year's group is void of superstars.
But defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said the lack of egos might be a good thing. Ole Miss gave up more than 35 points per game last season, which ranked last in the league.
"We have hopefully 11 guys who love each other and want to lay it on the line every play out there," Nix said. "When you have that accountability, that focus and that love, that's when great things happen."