Friday, July 13, 2007

Ole Miss Football: Wide Receiver Analysis

Filled with youth and inexperience headed into last season, the wide receiving corps was virtually unknown. This year, the group will be relied upon to help upgrade a passing game that ranked 110th nationally in 2006.

A unit which leaned heavily on the contributions of underclassmen, Ole Miss finished the season ranked last in passing offense in the SEC at a mere 136.1 average. However, the wideouts were responsible for 130 of the team’s 134 receptions. Improving the group as a whole was of priority in the spring, and the unit did not fail to impress.

With numerous playmakers at wide receiver, offensive coordinator Dan Werner has plenty of ammunition in the arsenal to attack opposing defenses in a variety of ways. With every contributor returning from last season, the wide receiving corps enters the fall with determination and confidence to drive the Rebel offense to a higher level.

Leading the way is sophomore Dexter McCluster, who compiled the third-most all-purpose yards on the team in his freshman campaign despite missing the last half of the season with injury. Appearing in six games, McCluster tallied 574 all-purpose yards including 274 by kick return, 232 by receiving and 68 on the ground. He also compiled the fourth-highest all-purpose total in Ole Miss history in his first career start with 268 all-purpose yards against Memphis.

Equipped with superior speed and playmaking ability, McCluster can terrorize defenses when used at any position. Versatile enough to line up at running back or wideout, he is a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball. McCluster requires extra attention from opposing coaches, and his ability to stay healthy will be essential towards the Rebels’ offensive success this season.

At 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, Marshay Green is an elusive playmaker, cut from a similar mold as McCluster. Possessing the ability to change direction instantaneously, Green appeared in all 12 games in 2006 with one start at wide receiver and finished second on the team with 786 all-purpose yards. A threat in the return game as well, Green is dangerous in the open field and is a prototypical slot receiver with great range and quickness.

He recorded three catches for 27 yards and a nine-yard touchdown in the spring game, and is a core component in the Rebels’ offensive scheme. The ability of the coaches to get the ball in his hands will be key for the unit in the fall.

Referred to by head coach Ed Orgeron as one of the most improved players on the team in the spring, Shay Hodge had a team-leading five receptions for 65 yards in the Red-Blue game. He saw action in every game last season, making two starts at flanker, and ranked third on the team with 16 receptions for 193 yards. The 6-foot-1, 196 pounder is of good size and provides the corps with a true possession receiver. Needing to work on his consistency in the spring, Hodge labored diligently to improve his hands and footwork, emerging as the starter at split end heading into camp.

The veteran of the group as a junior, Mike Wallace started all 12 games at split end a year ago, leading the team in catches (24) and receiving yards (410). Proving reliable throughout the duration of the year, Wallace averaged over 17 yards per reception, and in the spring, he recorded five grabs for 41 yards in the Red-Blue game. He is deep threat with sub 4.4 speed and the vocal leader of the group who will be counted on heavily to improve upon a solid sophomore performance.

One of the most athletic players on campus, Mico McSwain appeared in 11-of-12 games last season and earned two starts at flanker and one at running back. Although he missed spring drills to concentrate on academics, he is expected to be line up at wide receiver once fall practice begins. Displaying his versatility in 2006, McSwain finished third on the team with 140 rushing yards on 27 attempts and made five receptions for 19 yards on the season.

With his 6-foot-1, 203-pound frame, the former Freshman All-American tailback provides the unit with a big target down field that has the ability to elude oncoming defenders after the catch. If he settles in as a full-time receiver, McSwain could be a major factor in the passing game in the fall.

Michael Hicks appeared in 10 games and made two starts at flanker last year. He registered nine catches for 165 yards on the season and topped the team in yards per reception with an 18.3 average. He gives the coaching staff experience at the position, and he should contribute more in 2007.

Returning Starters: Dexter McCluster, Mike Wallace

Other Key Returnees: Marshay Green, Shay Hodge, Mico McSwain, Michael Hicks

Key Signees: Lionel Breaux, Roderick Davis, A.J. Jackson

Key Losses: none


Sophomore Dexter McCluster

On his progression since last season:

“Last year was my first year ever playing receiver in my life. I gained a lot more confidence in the position and in myself as a whole. Physically I am all clear, so when I go back out there I will already know what to expect.”

On the improvement of the unit over the summer:

“You can see we are getting better as a whole unit. We are working well together and catching a lot of balls without many drops. We are all on the same page and understand our assignments. We have definitely improved since last season and will continue to improve the more we work.”

On his role as an all-purpose player:

“To be honest, I like it. It is a lot more work, learning various positions, but I enjoy it. Any way I can contribute to the team, I’m all for it.”

On assistant coach Hugh Freeze now coaching the receivers:

“Coach Freeze has changed our entire attitude. He just lets us go out and play because he has confidence in all of us. We are all on the same page, and it has taken a lot of stress off all of us. Coach is really down to earth but hard working. He’s the man.”

On the depth of the group:

“We are going to scare a lot of teams this year. We have a lot of weapons with Marshay Green, Mike Wallace, Shay Hodge and myself. Now that we have experience under our belt, you never know what is going to happen. We have the potential to be explosive. There are a lot of options for us in the passing game.”

Junior Mike Wallace

On the improvement made throughout the offseason:

“We have to be able to pass the ball this year to win games. We are playing full speed every play in 7-on-7 drills, doing a lot of catching drills and just trying to be leaders. We’re going to be one of the strongest units on the team.”

On the experience gained from last season:

“The entire team’s confidence is at a high level. We have experience now from last season and feel we can play with anybody. As a group, we feel we lacked too much last year, and now we are ready to take that next step. It’s been a long time coming.”

On the group’s physical progression:

“We are in much better shape than we were in last year. Physically, Coach Aaron Ausmus is doing a great job of getting us prepared. Last year we could not find ways to finish games. With the physical maturation we have gone through this offseason, we should be able to do that.”

On how the battle at quarterback might affect the wide receivers:

“It does not matter who plays quarterback. We play well with whichever person is under center. As long as we can get the passing game going and get wins, it doesn’t matter to me who plays quarterback.”

On his outlook for next season:

“I expect us to win a lot of games next year. I know we are going to a bowl game, and that is not even a question in my mind. And I expect us to get to Atlanta for the SEC Championship. We have a lot of starters returning this year, so there are no excuses for us. We have to get it done.”

Final Analysis: Helped along by a productive spring, the progress of the wide receivers will be instrumental towards the success of the team in 2007.

At full health after sustaining head and shoulder injuries in the opening kickoff against Vanderbilt, Dexter McCluster supplies the Rebel offense with a multi-purpose talent that can be utilized at various positions. If he is able to maintain a full season without complications, look for McCluster to enjoy a break-out year for the Red and Blue.

Dangerous in every way, Marshay Green is poised for success next season. As a wide receiver and game-breaking returner, Green has the ability to change the face of a game in a matter of seconds with jaw-dropping change of direction and quickness. His ability to create will make him a fierce weapon for the Rebels.

Shay Hodge could become one of, if not the most, reliable receivers on the team next year if he continues to progress following a tremendous spring. A natural possession receiver, Hodge cut down on drops that plagued him last season and showed that he can be counted on for yardage when most needed.

A group that features multiple skill sets and talents, the wide receiver corps has the potential to be one of the most improved units on the team next season. Although much of the success in the passing game relies upon the performance of the quarterback position, the receivers should do their part to ensure that last year’s performance is not repeated. Through hard work and persistence, the group should be vastly better in 2007.

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