Ole Miss' coaching staff insists that it doesn't make its recruiting evaluations based on recruiting services' rankings or on prospects' offer lists.
Plenty of other programs make the same boasts, but it's often lip service. Houston Nutt's staff at Ole Miss, however, walks the walk that corresponds with that talk. Exhibit A just might be freshman running back Brandon Bolden.
The 5-foot-11, 215-pounder from Baton Rouge (Scotlandville Magnet), La., reported to Ole Miss in relative anonymity and has been one of the stories of the summer and the first week of preseason camp. Bolden has gone stride-for-stride with heralded freshmen Enrique Davis and Devin Thomas and _ along with Davis _ seems to be giving starter Cordera Eason and backup Derrick Davis a run for their jobs.
"LSU started off recruiting me," Bolden said. "I had a talk with their running back coach and they felt they had too many running backs and it would be a wasted scholarship. I agreed with them and I said, 'Sure, I'll drop that scholarship,' and basically, I just had to get out of Louisiana. I'm thrilled to be here. I'm glad to be a Rebel."
Ole Miss, likewise, is more than thrilled to have Bolden.
"The guys on this staff pride themselves on doing recruiting our own way," Ole Miss running backs coach Derrick Nix said. "We're not going by recruiting services or what they're rated. We're evaluating each kid on his own. We see them play and evaluate their character and then you make a great decision. That's what he's a product of."
That certainly appears to be the case. Bolden has been terrific so far in the Rebels' preseason practices, which resume today as Ole Miss gets ready for its Aug. 30 season opener against Memphis at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
"He's a tremendously fast kid," Nix said. "He's real compact. He's got great feet and he can cut on a dime. Whenever he gets the package all down, I think he'll be a very good player for us."
Bolden, Davis and Thomas have turned the Rebels' running back position from a relative weakness in the spring into a strength in the preseason. Nutt has repeatedly praised the newcomers, noting that they've pushed Eason into getting into the best shape of his career and thereby raising his level of play.
"I just think we have a camp full of guys we can win with," Ole Miss offensive coordinator Kent Austin said. "It's still fleshing itself out, and I think we'll go through the rest of camp before we make that determination, but I'm pleased with how they've performed and how well they're retaining the offense once they get on the practice field."
Late in spring drills and again in the first few days of preseason camp, Ole Miss' defense _ led by a talented defensive line _ dominated the Rebels' offense, disrupting the passing game with a ferocious pass rush. Late last week and again in Saturday's scrimmage, however, the emerging running game opened up the passing game for quarterback Jevan Snead and a talented receiver corps.
"Any time you can run the ball strongly, it definitely helps the passing game," Snead said. "Defenses start keying on the run and you're able to throw, especially with the line we have. I have to give it up to our backs. They've really been stepping up, older guys and younger guys, and they've done a great job not only running but also protecting."
Bolden isn't letting the praise inflate his ego. Instead, he's entering the second week of camp with specific areas of his game that he wants to improve.
"I'm still trying to catch up with the speed of the SEC," Bolden said. "That's all. I'm still on the learning curve just a bit because I still am a freshman and I haven't started playing against other teams yet.
"I believe if I can step up and do a little bit more pass protection and help Jevan and Billy Tapp and Nathan (Stanley), I believe all of us can really win some games. It's a technique thing, going inside and out and sinking your butt, but mainly, it's an instinct thing."
Bolden hasn't grown weary of the endless comparisons being drawn between he and Davis. The two freshmen got extensive time with the starting offense on Saturday, a trend that Bolden believes will continue this fall. In addition, Nutt's reputation for having multiple running backs who get carries each week has presumably taken some of the edge off the competition and created more of a sense of team.
"We basically do a lot of the same stuff," Bolden said when asked to compare and contrast he and Davis. "There isn't much of a difference. Both of us run hard and we both have a nose for the end zone.
"We all believe we can touch the ball in one game. We all believe we can feed off each other and that one can do one job and the others can step up and do something else. It's like a big family. We all have to do our part."
SNEAD READY FOR DEBUT: Jevan Snead had just thrown three touchdown passes and no interceptions in Ole Miss' first scrimmage of the fall, drawing hearty praise from Nutt and Austin. Afterwards, Snead waited in the corner of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, individually congratulating each of his wide receivers for their performances. Then, when a handful of reporters converged on him, the big Texan could hardly stand still.
The season, one Snead has been waiting on for more than a year since transferring from Texas, is just 19 days away.
"It's feeling pretty close," Snead said. "I'm just excited. I'm ready to get out there. I'm a little antsy right now. I'm ready to just go play. It's been too long. I just can't wait to get back on the field."
Snead's last start came on Nov. 11, 2006, a 45-42 Texas loss at Kansas State. In less than three weeks, he'll finally return to the playing field in game conditions, something he's emulated in a pair of Grove Bowls and a handful of scrimmages.
"It's definitely going to be a little different," Snead said. "You're going full-speed and you have a chance of actually getting hit, but (scrimmages) definitely help. Everybody else is going full-speed. I think it's about as close as you can get to a game."
Snead said he spent the summer committing to memory _ and muscle memory _ some corrections Austin made to his fundamentals during spring practice. In so doing, Snead said, he's improved his accuracy.
"Once you get your mechanics down, you're kind of there," Snead said. "I was having a little trouble locking my front leg when I threw and that really hindered my accuracy a little bit. It would sail a little bit and I didn't get enough power on it sometimes. I definitely worked on that, bending it when I throw and pretty much being more athletic back there. It's definitely helped a lot."
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