Brandon Bolden developed a reputation as a versatile offensive threat in his first year in the Southeastern Conference.
He rushed for 542 yards and five touchdowns on 98 carries, caught 10 passes for 107 yards and a score, averaged 15.4 yards on seven kickoff returns and even completed a 37-yard pass.
However, what got Bolden on the field as a true freshman was his ability to block as well as his pass-protection skills.
"Looking back on it, I'd say I could pick up protections pretty easily," Bolden said. "It wasn't anything too hard. I talked to (freshmen running backs) Korvic (Neat), Rodney (Scott) and Tim (Simon) and I said, 'If you learn these protections, you'll be fine.' Once you learn protections, you have to learn how to take on that block at the right time. In high school, I know I didn't have to block that many people, but there's a difference between blocking a linebacker in high school and blocking a linebacker in college, especially an SEC school. There's a technique to blocking, and once you get that down, you'll be fine."
A year later, Bolden has emerged as so much more than a dependable blocker in the backfield. The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Baton Rouge, La., native moved to the top of Ole Miss' crowded depth chart at tailback in the spring, and he spent his summer focusing on becoming a more explosive ball-carrier.
"I listened to what (the Ole Miss coaches) said I had to improve on and tried to do it," Bolden said. "One thing I wanted to work on coming into the spring was my speed. I talked to (strength and conditioning) Coach (Don) Decker and he said, 'We'll take care of that,' and basically this whole summer was about getting stronger and a lot faster."
Fall camp is just four days old, and there are plenty of challengers for his post, but all indications all point toward Bolden having a breakthrough campaign this fall.
"A complete back, to me, is a fast guy, a strong guy and a guy who can block," Bolden said. "People have their own definitions of what a complete back is. For me, right now, I'm still learning. I'm still a student of the game, so I wouldn't say I'm a complete back just yet. …Knowing all seven guys can get in there and do the same thing you can do, it just pushes you and makes you work harder. We all just kind of fuel each other."
Bolden's modesty aside, he has clearly gained the confidence of the Rebels' coaches.
"I think he has a combination of skills that we're looking for," Ole Miss offensive coordinator Kent Austin said. "He is a great receiver out of the backfield. He'll block and protect and he's an effective runner. He had a great summer, and we just feel like going into the fall practice, he's our No. 1 guy. That being said, you know Houston (Nutt) is going to roll the running backs and multiple guys are going to play. We really challenged all the other running backs that the depth chart at that position really doesn't matter. When you're on the football field, you're expected to play at a high level and to be able to contribute to us offensively."
"Brandon's got to keep working hard," Ole Miss running backs coach Derrick Nix said. "He had his opportunity to go through his first offseason with us and his first summer with us and he's shown big improvements. He's got to continue to do that. If he wants to become that guy you can go to on every down and that guy that's a big-time back for us in this league, he's going to have to keep improving like he's doing and showing that. I think he's capable of getting that done."
If he does, the Rebels' already dangerous offense should become even more explosive. That was proven in the second half of last season, when Ole Miss' running game made major strides week and week. The Rebels rushed for 186.5 yards per game on the ground last year, good for second in the SEC. Bolden believes Ole Miss should be even better in that category this year.
"This offense can be great if we can establish a running game," Bolden said. "If we can run it anytime we want to, we can fake the run and hit you with a long pass. It'd be great."