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July 21, 2011

Harris, Rebels believe chemistry will bring results

HOOVER, Ala. -- Melvin Harris said he has been playing organized football for 15 years.

He's played on good teams, bad teams and everything in between, but he said he's never looked forward to a season more than the one that begins next month.

This excitement comes despite the fact that his Ole Miss team is almost universally being picked to finish dead last in the Southeastern Conference's Western Division for the second straight year and the receiver corps he is a part of serves as one of the biggest question marks on a team chock full of unknowns.

The reason for Harris' giddiness is a sense, one shared by many of his teammates who have talked publicly this summer, that this Ole Miss team has developed a chemistry that its predecessor never did.

"Last year we weren't as close as we are now," Harris said. "I can honestly say we've never been this close as a football team. I feel like the team chemistry, with that, everybody will go out and fight to the very end. I can't say that about last year."

"I guess the older guys, they were still close but that's how it was," Ole Miss safety Brishen Mathews said. "It was the old with the old and the new with the new. It wasn't interconnected with a senior with a freshman and a junior with a sophomore, a junior with a freshman. It was all upper classmen and then little fish, big pond, big fish. That's how it was."

Harris said that lack of cohesive team chemistry was obvious early last season. He cited the August arrival of former Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli as a turning point. After spending an offseason preparing to play with quarterback Nathan Stanley, the Rebels had a new leader forced upon them. That uncertainty, Harris said, reared its ugly head in Ole Miss' season-opening overtime loss to Jacksonville State, a defeat that set the tone for the Rebels' 4-8 season.

"I just didn't feel like we were all rah-rah for each other to pull through," Harris said. "This year, we're all going to be on one page. I feel like I'm on a whole different team this year."

Even if Harris is right and the Rebels have a closer, more single-minded team, will that be enough to overcome inexperience at quarterback, a lack of proven playmakers at some skill positions and a lack of depth at virtually every defensive position? Almost every player polled at SEC Football Media Days in suburban Birmingham this week said team chemistry can indeed make up for almost all deficiencies.

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who won the Heisman Trophy as a player at Florida and then led the Gators to a national championship as a head coach, said the recipe for winning in the SEC is all about talent.

"Marcus (Lattimore) gives us hope," Spurrier said, referring to the rising sophomore running back who set South Carolina freshman rushing records last season by accumulating 249 carries for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns, including strong efforts in wins over Georgia, Florida and Tennessee, helping the Gamecocks to their first-ever appearance in the SEC Championship Game last December. "I think when we beat Florida down there, I said when we signed Marcus Lattimore, that's what gave us a chance to beat Florida.

"When you get some guys that can really play, that gives you a chance. Everybody doesn't have to be a star player. You don't need 11 stars out there on the field, but you need two or three on offense and defense to give you that chance to have the big year."

Chris Relf certainly hasn't won on Spurrier's level yet, but the Mississippi State quarterback said the Bulldogs' chemistry last season was the single most important element that propelled the program to a 9-4 record and a win over Michigan in the Gator Bowl.

"It's very important," Relf said. "As a team, you have to always make sure you stick together as one. That's how you make it, for real. You know in the offseason if a team has chemistry when you're going through these big-time workouts. There can't be any selfishness on a team. The only way you're going to make it to where you want to go is if everybody bonds together as one.

"You can have a team with chemistry that's as one against a team with good talent, and that team with chemistry is going to win."

Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin agreed. Boykin said a lack of chemistry contributed to the Bulldogs' disappointing 6-7 season in 2010.

"Everybody has talent, but if you're not a team, you'll get beat any day," Boykin said. "It showed a lot of times with us (last season). We weren't on the same page chemistry-wise and didn't know what we were doing. Talent alone couldn't save us."

Auburn was one of the nation's most talented teams last season. Quarterback Cam Newton won the Heisman Trophy and was selected first overall by the Carolina Panthers in the NFL draft. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley won the Lombardi Award and was taken 13th overall by the Detroit Lions.

Three Auburn players said Thursday, however, that the Tigers' chemistry was more important than the physical talent en route to the BCS national championship.

"One player doesn't make a team," Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen said. "If we didn't have chemistry with Cam on offense, then our timing was off and we wouldn't have trusted each other and we wouldn't have had as much success as we did. But we all loved each other and cared for each other so we played for each other."

Lutzenkirchen said the Tigers' chemistry developed last summer. It became even stronger when Auburn overcame early-season deficits to win home games against Clemson and South Carolina.

"When you go down by 17 and you come back, people start saying, 'All right, we've got it. No matter how far down we go, we're good and we're going to come back and win this football game,'" Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae said. "We were a talented group. You can win a national championship in this country without being talented."

"Talent is one of the major parts that you need, but the drive, the trust and the poise that our team had couldn't be matched by anybody," Auburn wide receiver Emory Blake added. "Our talent, Alabama probably had the same amount of talent as us last year and LSU always does. But when you've been down 14-0 and come back and when you've been down 17-0 and come back and have a team that doesn't flinch and never got fazed, that's what made us a special team and that's why we won a national championship."


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