IRVING, Texas -- He put on a brave face, but Dexter McCluster's heart was broken following Ole Miss' losses to Vanderbilt and South Carolina earlier this season.
In both games, Ole Miss' speedy all-purpose back fumbled close to the goal line, killing scoring drives that would have put the Rebels in command against Southeastern Conference foes.
Publicly, at least, McCluster faced the music with a stiff jaw, forceful eyes and all the right words. Privately, he was devastated. But instead of digging a proverbial hole and climbing in for the remainder of the season, McCluster played a huge role in Ole Miss' season-ending, five-game winning streak, one that earned the 20th-ranked Rebels a berth in Friday's AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic against No. 8 Texas Tech.
"It was very hard," McCluster said Monday afternoon. "My family supported me and my teammates supported me and the coaches never lost faith in me. I think that's what helped me, and that's what stopped me from crawling into a hole. I know things aren't going to always go my way all the time, but I just have to work hard and minimize your mistakes."
"It just shows you the character that he has, I think," Ole Miss offensive coordinator Kent Austin said. "Let me tell you now: It really affected him, because he cares about this team and he cares about his teammates. The best players always care about their teammates. The thing that Dexter has is he truly understands that this is a team game and the success that he's going to have individually is really going to be affected by the success of his team. That's the way it works and all the great players understand that. So it hurt him a lot. He felt responsible, but he wasn't responsible."
After the South Carolina game, a 31-24 Gamecocks victory, Austin, Houston Nutt and the rest of the Rebels' offensive staff evaluated what was causing McCluster's untimely turnovers.
"We talked about it more than once with him," Austin said. "He's such a fine young man that never cowered to any challenge that we gave him, so we pushed him. He's such a natural playmaker and he's so dynamic on the football field that he helps you win football games. I think a lot of it was maybe at times, Dexter got a little tired."
McCluster focused more intensely than ever on ball security, and it paid off. Outside of a fumble in the fourth quarter of the Rebels' 31-13 win at LSU on Nov. 22, McCluster has been perfect with the football while his role has expanded.
"Me, being the player I am, I try to make something happen each and every play," McCluster said. "Now I've learned that you have to live to play another down and let the big plays come to you."
That happened routinely this season. McCluster, who has played quarterback in the "Wild Rebel" offense and lined up at wide receiver and tailback, has 95 carries for 558 yards and five touchdowns rushing while catching 38 passes for 542 yards and another touchdown.
"I think we've done a pretty good job in placing him in situations that take advantage of his skills and not ask him to do more than he's capable of physically," Austin said.
Getting through a season unscathed has been one of McCluster's proudest accomplishments. The 5-foot-8, 165-pound junior from Largo, Fla., missed time in each of his first two seasons with injuries. This season, despite the increase in touches, McCluster has passed out more punishment than he's absorbed.
"That's meant a lot," McCluster said. "My first couple of years were rough. I've been down a little, but I never gave up and the coaches never gave up on me. Coach Nutt and his staff did a great job of keeping me healthy and I'm just happy to still be here and playing with the team. It's great for me.
"I get a lot of comments before the game, like, 'Are you sure you're in the right sport?' I just laugh at them, and when they do see what I can do, I don't say anything. They know."
Even though McCluster's thoughts are focused on the Cotton Bowl and Texas Tech, he admitted that he's looked ahead to next year, wondering what role he'll play in the Rebels' 2009 offense. Mike Wallace will be gone, but Ole Miss returns a stable of receivers and running backs, as well as tight end Gerald Harris, Ferbia Allen and E.J. Epperson.
"I often catch myself wondering the same thing," McCluster said. "I'm the type of player that wherever they need me, I'm going to go do it. I guess I'll have to wait and see. That hasn't been discussed at all. I guess I'll have to wait and see."
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