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Ole Miss, Snead looking to build on last season's surprising turnaround

Early on, Snead made an inadvertent habit of landing in the same orbit as contemporaries who would turn into household names while he got lost in their shadows. Now, the stars have aligned for the Ole Miss junior, who is generating Heisman buzz and whose team will enter the 2009 season as a trendy pick in the SEC West after a 9-4 2008 campaign that included wins over eventual national champion Florida (the Gators' only loss), 2007 defending champ LSU and Big 12 South hopeful Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl.

But Snead isn't the type to get too worked up, even when fans and analysts are heaping praise upon him and his Rebels, who many believe could begin the season in the top 10. "I believe that we can't pay too much attention to those preseason polls because nobody had us picked up at the beginning of last year," the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder said. "So really it's the postseason polls that you're worried about."

That's the kind of level-headed outlook those around Snead have come to expect. Coach Houston Nutt lauds Snead for his ability to act as a humble and quiet leader who carries himself the same way, no matter what is going on around him. Take last season. When Snead threw 11 interceptions in his first eight games last year, he was the same old Jevan. When he turned it around and threw for 779 yards and nine touchdowns in the final three games, his demeanor didn't change. Snead knew he had to maintain perspective, had to shake off the rust that had settled since he appeared in five games as a Texas freshman in 2006.

"I think part of [my slow start] was due to my lack of experience," he said. "You have to grow as a quarterback and you should be playing better at the end of the season."

That's precisely what quarterback -- and team -- did last season.

After beating the Gators 31-30 in Gainesville, the Rebels landed on the Sports Illustrated cover for the first time since Sept. 14, 1970, when Archie Manning was the face of the team. Though they followed that thrilling upset with narrow losses to South Carolina and at Alabama, they haven't lost since, ending the year on a six-game winning streak that culminated with a 47-34 win over the Red Raiders.

Now, a program that until last season hadn't won an SEC game since Nov. 25, 2006 and that last played in a bowl game in 2003, has everyone clamoring to see what it'll do when the spotlight is on. It's a markedly different way to begin a season, but Nutt is making sure his players don't forget just how far they came in his first year.

"'Before last year you hadn't won an SEC game so there was very little respect for you,'" Nutt said he told his players. "'Now you can't sneak into the Swamp, you can't sneak into Death Valley and beat an LSU or a Florida. You're on the radar and how hard are you working?' That's kind of been the theme: How hard are you working?"

The Rebels may not be able to sneak up on teams anymore, but considering the cast of playmakers -- and the schedule -- at Nutt's disposal, they won't need to rely on the element of surprise. The Rebels return 17 of 22 starters, including Snead, who finished the season with 2,762 passing yards and 26 TDs, wide receiver/running back Dexter McCluster (1,280 total yards and seven scores), receiver Shay Hodge (44 receptions for 725 yards and eight TDs), their top five rushers and sack master Greg Hardy, who headlines a line that should be among the best in the SEC, if not the nation.

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Ole Miss will also benefit from a schedule that includes two FCS schools (Southeastern Louisiana and Northern Arizona), UAB and Memphis and home matchups against its toughest opponents, Alabama, Tennessee and LSU. And, of course, there's no Florida.

Still, questions remain, including the biggest of all: Who will protect Snead's blindside? "The biggest concern when we go to bed every night is the left side [of the offensive line]," Nutt said.

Redshirt sophomore Rishaw Johnson, who appeared in five games last year, redshirt freshman Bradley Sowell and junior college transfer Logan Clair are vying to replace departed All-America left tackle Michael Oher and left guard Darryl Harris. That lack of experience means the incoming class of freshman will fill most of the No. 2 spots on the depth chart. "As good as they recruited years past on the defensive line, it's the exact opposite on the offensive line, there's no depth," Nutt said.

But that glaring hole in the Rebels' roster won't dampen expectations, especially those surrounding Snead, who has already done what Ethan Flatt, Micheal Spurlock, Brent Schaeffer, Robert Lane and Seth Adams couldn't: revive a position that has been ordinary since Eli Manning had them doing the Hotty Toddy chant.

The Mannings invited Snead to coach high schoolers at the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, La., and Snead accepted, using the opportunity to learn from Ole Miss' First Family of Quarterbacks, Eli and Archie.

"They stress how much hard work it takes to be quarterback on a winning team, just how much hard work it takes and how much time it takes to be great and accomplish what you want to accomplish," Snead said. "That's one thing they stressed and I took from it. There's always more work that can be done and you can always improve."

This spring, Snead's decision-making and understanding of the offense have improved most of all, Nutt said. So much so, in fact, that Nutt's giving Snead more freedom to change plays prior to the snap to exploit defenses. "We put a lot on the quarterback and he's really handled it," Nutt said.

The way Snead has handled Ole Miss' offense has helped invigorate a program that had won just 14 games between its SEC West co-championship run in '03 and last season. During that time at the Grove, the 10 acre stretch of oak and magnolia the Rebel faithful call home, the claim that "We may have lost a game, but we'll never lose a party" summed up the level of interest in what was going on inside the stadium. Now, fans have good reason to view football as more than a distraction.

"We're excited but we're also cautious," Nutt said. "That's what we try to put in our guys, that we have to play at a very high level, because there are a lot of eyes on you and people are going to play you much harder this year."

The fans are excited, too. And as the excitement swells in Oxford this fall, only one of the many liquid and visual intoxicants the Grove offers will be responsible: football.