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November 19, 2009

Who can replace McCluster in 2010?

Lane Kiffin wants one. So did Tommy West, before being fired earlier this month by Memphis. Bobby Petrino probably wants one too.

What opposing head coaches, who have been sliced and diced by Ole Miss senior star athlete Dexter McCluster, want is a player just like McCluster.

"I've never seen a player that plays tailback, does the "Wildcat" stuff that he does," Kiffin said after the 42-17 loss last Saturday at Ole Miss. "He can go out and run receiver routes. There are some guys like Reggie (Bush), and there are some other guys that have gone out there and run receiver routes. But, he's a really unique talent. I watched him run up and down, and I can't tell you how many times I looked at (Coach Ed) Orgeron (recruiting coordinator) and said `go get us one of those.'"

Ironically, Orgeron recruited McCluster for Ole Miss as part of his first full recruiting class at Ole Miss in 2006.

Not only do coaches want a player like McCluster, there are numerous recruits who want to be like McCluster, and think they can achieve that level of play.

"Oh yeah, that ran through my mind, that I could be like him, play that role for Ole Miss," White Hall, Ark. all-purpose back Larry Walls said on Wednesday evening. "Ole Miss' offense suits me to a tee. We run the same offense at my high school and I play some quarterback, wide receiver, and running back. I could see myself in that role."

While Hall is yet to receive his first Division I offer, his statistics are impressive - he's rushed for almost 2,000 yards on the season and had 444 yards rushing in his season opener - McCluster like high school numbers.

There are others who will try to replace McCluster next season - two currently on the roster and two inbound - and Ole Miss likely will recruit even more that could compete for the role.

True freshman Jesse Grandy has shown a burst of speed and has returned two kick offs for touchdowns despite not taking on the role of kick returner until about five games into the season. Korvic Neat, a speedster at 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, is drawing a redshirt season this fall and had McCluster looking highlight reels coming out of high school. Like McCluster, he was once verbally committed to a Florida school before flipping to Ole Miss - McCluster was originally a South Florida commitment while Neat was once committed to Florida International.

On this year's commitment list, the Rebels have running back Jeff Scott, who is more in line of an all-purpose back, at 5-foot-8, 170 pounds with 4.4 speed and junior college super star Randall Mackey, who first signed with the Rebels in 2008, and has spent the last two years at East Mississippi C.C. and is a potential big-time impact player.

Of the four, Mackey is certainly the most intriguing. While he's huge size-wise in comparison to McCluster, Scott, or Neat at 6-foot, 190 pounds, he was a quarterback coming out of high school and has started for two years at EMCC. His combination of being a running threat and legitimate passing threat might actually give Ole Miss an added dimension to its Wild Rebel formation - McCluster has difficulty seeing over the offensive line and has not attempted a pass all season - a situation that won't affect Mackey.

Mackey showcased his abilities in the recent state championship game. A NJCAA pre-season All-American, he went 31-of-42 through the air for 477 passing yards and seven touchdowns along with 125 rushing yards on 18 carries. He finished the regular season with 29 touchdown passes and 53 for his two-year career.

Meanwhile, the search for additional players of McCluster's ilk continues by Ole Miss coaches.

While they haven't offered Walls, Ole Miss remains in contact, recently scouting one of his games and continuing to keep an eye on the 5-foot-8, 161 pound speedster. Walls hasn't attended any Ole Miss games this fall, but clearly likes the Rebels and could take an official visit. He said Ole Miss coaches have told him to "hang on" to see how their recruiting board goes and if they'll have a spot for him.

Another player Ole Miss is looking at is Quadarias Mireles, a sleeper out of Delray Beach, Fla. Ole Miss recently offered and Mireles committed; however, his commitment apparently has not been accepted pending an official visit and the outcome of an injury he recently suffered.

Mireles, who ran a 4.35 40-yard dash earlier this year at Florida State's summer camp, has played mostly wide receiver for his team this fall, but took on added responsibilities this season to run the "Wildcat" formation.

While Rebel fans - and coaches from other schools - are in search of a McCluster clone, there may not be one in the high school ranks. McCluster certainly showed flashes of brilliance coming out of high school - where he was known as Mr. 2000 after running for almost 2,500 yards as a true running back his senior season - it has taken time for him to develop into the star he is today.

At the time he signed in 2006, Orgeron was the head coach and Ole Miss wasn't running the wildcat formation. McCluster was viewed as too small and unable to take the weekly pounding between tackles in the SEC as a running back, so he was placed at wide receiver. It was all new to him, having to learn to run wide receiver routes. Under the tutelage of Matt Lubick, then Ole Miss' wide receivers coach who discovered McCluster, he emerged from fall camp as a starter as a true freshman. He also returned kicks and punts, but was lost midway through his first season with a severe neck and shoulder injury, which was suffered on a kick off return. When he returned in 2007, he wanted to play running back, but was again held out by coaches who feared he could of re-injure his neck.

With the arrival of Houston Nutt, McCluster was given the opportunity to quarterback the Wild Rebel - a formation where McCluster lines up in the shotgun as the quarterback, takes the snap with the option to hand off, pass, or pick a hole to run the ball - and his ability as a running back became quickly in evidence. In addition to playing wide receiver and quarterback in the Wild Rebel, he occasionally lined up as the running back in the I-formation, providing another way to get him the football and create headaches for defensive coordinators. After struggling some on offense early in this season, the McCluster dotted-I has become Ole Miss' most productive formation.

Although McCluster's durability because of his size has often been questioned, his confidence has always been there to play the position.

Going back as far as 2007, sources close to McCluster said he felt he was the best running back on the team - and that's the year that Ole Miss had running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who rushed for 1,000 yards for a second consecutive year and went on the the NFL.

He also had one other supporter, his high school coach who nicknamed him "Instant Offense."

"He has the best vision I have ever seen in 27 years of coaching," high school coach Rick Rodriguez said.

As sometimes happens in the recruiting evaluation process, McCluster was under ranked in high school considering what he has achieved in on the college gridiron.

McCluster was a three-star prospect, the No. 54 athlete prospect in the country and listed with only 4.5 speed, but he did have several offers including offers from Rutgers, South Florida, and West Virginia. However, he had none from any SEC team except Ole Miss.

He also had some academic issues, which may have turned off some schools, but after watching his video, Orgeron was willing to take a chance - one that has benefited Ole Miss but come back to bite Orgeron last Saturday in the Rebels lopsided win where McCluster was the headline.

After watching McCluster set two school records - for all-time rushing yards with 282, and for all-purpose yards (he had another 42 yards in catches) - many coaches, who are already copying Houston Nutt's "Wild Rebel" formation, will want a McCluster-type to run it. And prospects, especially those small in size with speed who watch ESPN highlights, will want to be like McCluster.

Coaches will recruit prospects that they can only hope will develop into the "instant offense" that McCluster has become. The chances of finding one anytime soon, and it happening by any other method than pure luck, is very remote.

Ole Miss will probably have as much luck in recruiting a replacement for McCluster as they had in recruiting one for Archie Manning, Deuce McAllister, Patrick Willis, or Eli Manning - players etched in Rebel lore - who can't be replaced.

What Ole Miss does have a good chance of doing is developing players like Mackey, Grandy, and Neat and using them collectively to replace McCluster's production.

But, for the answer to the question of who can replace McCluster, that's easy - nobody.


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