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September 15, 2011

Breakdown: Fall ball preview

Ole Miss baseball returns to the diamond Friday for scout day, which will kick off fall practice. The period gives Ole Miss a chance to play with positions and get a head start on the 2012 season.

BURNING QUESTIONS: Chase Parham provides answers to these five burning questions
1) What impact will Cliff Godwin have on the Ole Miss program?
The former LSU and Central Florida assistant is a home-run hire for Mike Bianco. Other than giving Ole Miss essentially a second recruiting coordinator, Godwin is a high-energy guy that should supply some fire to the program. Energy is something the Rebels have struggled to establish and maintain recently. Godwin will be in charge of the Ole Miss offense, and past history says he'll reinvigorate that portion of the program. He'll teach fundamentals and push players toward their ceilings without completely changing swings that have worked in the past.

Mike Bianco will continue to have final say in game decisions, but it's Godwin's work in practice and during the fall that should pay dividends for Ole Miss in the spring. In terms of an all-around assistant, Bianco found a great fit for his program.

2) Can 2012 be 2003 part II?
Ole Miss missed the postseason in 2002 but rebounded the next season thanks to a plethora of incoming arms - including Stephen Head, Mark Holliman and Eric Fowler. If 2011 is to be successful, a similar situation will have to occur. The Rebels lost all three weekend starters from last season, and sophomore Bobby Wahl seems to be the only returner penciled into a weekend role. It's possible the Rebels will start two newcomers in the weekend rotation, so keep an eye on their progression throughout the fall. Drew Pomeranz was torched his first fall in Oxford, so transitions are expected, however the quicker it successfully occurs, the more likely the player can help during the early part of the season - that includes trips to TCU and Louisville.

Freshmen right-handers Josh Laxer, Casey Mulholland and Hawtin Buchanan are likely options, along with junior college lefty Dylan Chavez. Sophomore Mike Mayers is also a player with experience that could take a noticeable jump.

3) Will a left-hander step up for the Rebels?
Here are the left-handed pitchers on the roster - stop me when I get to one with noticeable experience: Will Jamison, Chase Reeves, Dylan Chavez, Dustin McWilliams and Jon Andy Scott. That's it, all the left-handers for Bianco to choose from. He said it's not a huge deal when I asked him about it Wednesday, and I agree that it's not a major issue. But it wouldn't be the worst thing to have some variety to choose from. Jamison and Reeves are both also position players. Chavez did appear in 18 games and have a 6.15 ERA with St. Mary's in 2010. McWilliams is a JUCO product from Meridian. Scott - a senior - pitched one inning last season, allowing three runs on four hits.

Teams have succeeded without options from both sides, but it could play a role in how Bianco manages if his best choices are all right-handed. Ole Miss needs one or more of the lefties to move into the mix.

4) Who's going to catch?
Excellence behind the plate has been an Ole Miss staple under Mike Bianco, but there are questions with this year's crop. Senior Taylor Hightower is the frontrunner entering the fall, as he's lettered three seasons and has a great deal of experience. However, he's yet to show consistency throughout a season and has struggled with his receiving at times - something that appeared to be a strength during his recruitment. Hightower was one of the top-three catchers nationally out of Cartersville, Ga., and it's his final opportunity to claim and hold on to the job.

JUCO transfer Kody Sepulveda was added to the roster late in the process, and he's a catch-and-throw catcher that could have trouble with his bat at this level. Will Allen will be in the mix, although he can play several other spots and didn't catch as a freshman. Austin Knight, the freshman out of Sumrall, Miss., is talented and has received high marks, but it's hard to count on a freshman at that position. Sikes Orvis is known for his bat and will likely play elsewhere.

5) Which position newcomers can claim a spot before the fall is over?
The fall is the perfect time to impress the coaching staff and put pressure on a returning player at his position. Outfield is the main place with opportunity, as Tanner Mathis will be back in centerfield, but it's wide open to get a spot on either side of the junior. Freshmen Auston Bousfield and Jamison are possibilities. Bousfield is from the Orlando Scorpion tree, and Jamison is the fastest player on the team. Orvis' bat can definitely play, so it's a matter of finding a spot on the field if the designated hitter position isn't open.

Also watch closely to the infield battle, as several starters from 2011 could be relegated to bench duty. Preston Overbey will start as the leader at third base, but Rio Hondo product Andrew Mistone should challenge immediately. Also, Austin Anderson and Blake Newalu are fighting for playing time. Alex Yarbrough is the team's best player and a known commodity, but he could play third base or second base.

FIVE TO WATCH: Here's a list of five players to pay attention to this fall
1) Bobby Wahl, sophomore pitcher
Parham Says: Wahl showed a lot of talent and fast-learning ability as the Rebels' closer as a freshman last season. He excelled in the Cape Cod League over the summer, and that's a decent indicator of success. As with all pitchers, stats during the fall aren't incredibly important. It's like spring training. Pay more attention to how Ole Miss begins to lengthen Wahl's outings and how he handles that. He's likely the Rebels' Friday night starter in the spring, so he'll have to get away from the back-of-the-bullpen duties and learn to control his stamina and pitch to contact more.
2) Taylor Hightower, senior catcher
Parham Says: I talked about it above, but I will again emphasize how it's now or never for Hightower. He's been a good leader at times and knows the game. It's just the consistency, and his ability to stay focused on his receiving. He's got the ability to hit for a solid average and is a veteran presence that never hurts. The Rebels need him to have a good fall, gain confidence and go into the spring as the outright favorite for the catching job.
3) Andrew Mistone, junior infielder
Parham Says: A late signee, Mistone could be the steal of the class. He hit .477 and was the Foothills Conference Player of the Year at Rio Hondo -- Kevin Mort's JUCO -- last season. He began his career at UC-Riverside, scouting reports say he can handle his own at third base. If Mistone can adjust to the SEC, then he's my favorite at the position, but that's a decent if. A lot of transfers see a transitional period similar to freshmen.
4) Matt Snyder, senior infielder
Parham Says: There's really only one question here. Can Snyder stay full strength through an entire season? He injured his shoulder during the non-conference portion of 2010 and re-injured it several times including the first full day of fall ball last year. He's proven he can hit for power and anchor the middle of the order when healthy. It's the "when healthy" part that's the problem. This fall, Snyder needs to avoid injury and get back in the groove of playing in the field. Ole Miss needs him to at least have the ability to play first base.
5) Tanner Bailey, junior pitcher
Parham Says: I include Bailey here because I'm curious what he can do, and the Rebels need the older guys to produce. The tall right-hander missed last season due to a labrum injury suffered in junior college, but he was healthy at the end of last year could be a significant spark for the Rebels. The fall is important for him to see live hitters and get back into a competitive mindset.

1) A few of the current players won't be on the active roster come opening day. The NCAA allows a maximum roster size of 35 players, the Rebels are currently at 41 roster members. But more than enough is the only way to prepare. Ole Miss was hit with two dismissals and three injuries last in2010, leaving Jake Morgan and Scott unavailable but on the travel roster.
2) The Rebels are coming off a missed postseason after making the NCAA Tournament eight straight seasons. Matt Mossberg resigned at the end of the season, and Ole Miss hired Godwin.
3) Ole Miss needs improvement from three of its highly-billed freshmen from last season. Austin Anderson (.233), Will Allen (.227) and Preston Overbey (.235) all had less-than-stellar averages in their first season.
4) Ole Miss is having to replace 74 percent of its innings pitched from last season, including 100 percent of its weekend starts.
5) The Diamond Rebels bring back 22 players from last year's roster and welcome the addition of 19 new faces to the field this fall. Among those newcomers are nine players who were drafted in the 2011 MLB Draft but elected to come to Ole Miss and play for the Rebels rather than head to the professional ranks.

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