Still, a lack of hype and depth doesn't faze the returning members of the secondary. According to senior strong safety J.C. Neal, who started six games last season, the lack of respect and fresh competition helped sharpen the secondary in the spring, as well as early in camp. For the second straight year, he and redshirt sophomore Javon Walker, back from a knee injury, will battle in practice for minutes.
"We have a chip on our shoulders," Neal said. "But we're like brothers. All of us are real tight. We go about it as business on the field, the DBs. We push each other a lot on the field and off the field. We're always in competition with each other so we're real tight back there as a unit."
Neal will need to be particularly tight with whichever redshirt freshman earns the starting job at free safety. The position is up for grabs between Justin Byers and Jimmaul Simmons, and though Neal said he feels "comfortable with both," Simmons may have an advantage after enrolling in January of 2007 and thus competing for the past two springs.
According to Neal, however, the decision is up to the coaching staff, and he is trying to help both adjust to their improved roles quickly so that the unit is "in tune come August 28."
"I'm just basically
giving them confidence."
"I'm just basically giving them confidence," he said. "If they get depressed on the field because they're not getting something, I just ask them if they need help. Off the field I watch film with them and go over the playbook with them—small things. Besides that, it's just keeping them cheerful and boosting their morale."
The starting cornerback positions should be locked down between senior Jeremy Gray, the right corner who led the team with three interceptions last season, and redshirt sophomore DeAndre Morgan, who earned the starting job in seven games last season.
The concern at corner is that if either starter needs a blow or gets banged up, the reserves are unproven and inexperienced. Koyal George, a former wide receiver, will back up Morgan, while true freshman Dominique Ellis is behind Gray. Gray said there have been some growing pains among the new faces and younger teammates, notably translating the fundamentals from the meeting room to the field.
"They're young, so of course they are not going to get it off top," Gray said. "But they're doing a good job. We've put a lot of stuff in, so they have to keep up with the [returning] defensive players. You expect a lot from them, but when you throw too much on them, there is going to be times that they mess up. Overall, they are getting it."
Ellis has caught Gray's attention.
"Dominique was here in the spring so he got the butt of it, the whole defense," said Gray. "The freshmen just got here, but they're coming along. They're slacking a little bit, but they're getting it slowly. But spring ball had to help [Ellis], if you see all the stuff they throw at [the freshmen]. They threw the whole book at them in the first three or four days. So for him to be here in the spring helps a lot."
And despite the lack of hype, the secondary is confident it will produce, starting in camp and ultimately in Columbia.
"Talk is cheap. All we can do is show them on August 28th," said Gray.
The team will hold its first scrimmage Wednesday and Pack Pride will post stats and quotes from head coach Tom O'Brien after the scrimmage, so stay tuned.
"That's more for [the
media] and the fans."
According to graduate Daniel Evans, listed No. 1 on the depth chart at quarterback, the scrimmages hold little significance over the daily practices other than the fact that "it is fun and it breaks up the week nicely."
"I can almost promise you that the coaches don't care about the statistics," Evans said. "So many times in those scrimmages we're working on different things and maybe someone runs the wrong route or misses a block or whatever... I can promise you they don't really look too much at the statistics, that's more for [the media] and the fans."
Evans said he feels the experience gained in practices is equally valuable to the quarterbacks as the scrimmages in getting an edge on one another.
"It's not so much different at all," said Evans. "Pretty much everything we do out here at regular practice is game-like and stuff. Everything that we do coach Bible is trying to put enough strain on us and enough stress on us physically and mentally to put us in a game-like situation. He tries to put us in a situation that's even harder than we would be in in a game."