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The Ole Miss Rebels hope to start strong in 2011

Petre Thomas/The Daily Mississippian


The Rebels hope to get off to a better start this season than they did last season, when the Jacksonville State Gamecocks shocked the world in a 49-48 double-overtime win over Ole Miss, but the task will not be easy.

This is because Ole Miss will welcome the Cougars of Brigham Young University to open up the 2011 football season with a non-conference matchup.

“I know that (BYU head coach) Bronco Mendenhall and his team will be tough,” head coach Houston Nutt said. “They will be smart and disciplined. They have a quarterback (Jake Heaps) coming back with a lot of confidence and experience. 

“They have receivers that are tall and some big offensive linemen. They have a good football team. They are tough, experienced and disciplined. They don’t beat themselves.”

This first game is vital for the Rebels in setting the tone for the rest of the season, Nutt said.

“There is no doubt about it that in the first game you need to get off on the right foot,” he said. “It is very important. We would not approach it any other way.”

Nutt said his players respect BYU. 

“They know they have a good football team,” Nutt said. “This is a big game, a new start and a new season. Everyone is very anxious.”

This Saturday will also mark the first start for sophomore Barry Brunetti, who was named the starter last week. Junior Zack Stoudt is also expected to play in the game Saturday.

Brunetti is excited to get the nod, but also understands the responsibility that comes with it.

“I’m anxious,” Brunetti said during practice this week. “I’m ready. I know the offense. I know the game plan. I’m glad my family and friends want to come see me play, but I’m not going to let that be used against me. 

“You just have to turn the phone off a couple of times.”

Offensive coordinator David Lee has noticed a difference in Brunetti’s play as Saturday approaches.

“Barry looked good,” Lee said. “It’s the first time I truly felt like he looked like a starter, practiced like a starter. He hit what he was throwing at. I’m encouraged.”

But even if Brunetti and company move the ball down the field and put points on the board, the defense will need to hold off the air raid of the Cougars.

BYU sophomore quarterback Jake Heaps will be a handful for the Ole Miss secondary. New defensive backs coach Keith Burns, as well as the additions of junior college transfer Wesley Pendleton and freshmen Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt, will play a huge role if the unit has hopes of improvement this season. 

The pass defense starts with the defensive line, led by senior defensive ends Kentrell Lockett and Wayne Dorsey.

“Defensively last year, we felt we were solid and had a lot of experience,” Nutt said. “We just didn’t play with that experience and passion.” 

Nutt said Justin Smith, Lockett, Wayne Dorsey, Byron Bennett, Carlton Martin, Gilbert Pena and Uriah Grant have to get it done for the Rebels. 

“There is a hunger there when they are chasing the ball,” Nutt said. “We aren’t as big, but they have quickness. I can’t wait to see them play. I do know what I have seen is that they will lay it on the line and play hard and physical.”

Looking at this game, you have one team in BYU, which is coming off a strong finish last year, having won six of their last eight games. They have loads of confidence and virtually everyone back from last year’s team.

On the other hand, you have an Ole Miss team that is looking to regain respect after an embarrassing 2010 campaign. The Rebels have big, strong athletes all over the field, but most of those guys are young and inexperienced.

There is also the weather, which may play an important factor in Saturday’s game.

At kickoff, the temperature is expected to be in the mid-to-high 90s with humidity. That will not bode well for the Cougars of BYU. While they are used to dealing with the high altitudes of Utah, they will likely be hurting when they get in the Mississippi heat.

“The humidity could be a factor for them,” Nutt said. “It has been one of the hottest summers to date. Once the game kicks off and the sun goes down, we will see. The humidity is definitely different.”

The Rebels and the Cougars kick off the season Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium at 3:45 p.m. The game will also be nationally televised on ESPN.