A lot of times, the definition of youth is synonymous with experience, or the lack of.
That will be the case this spring training when the Rebel coaches take on the task of piecing together a defensive line without the four grizzled defensive tackles who graduated from the program last year and without the benefit of DE Kentrell Lockett being available during the spring session.
In essence, this spring will be a changing of the guard for the forward wall of the defense.
"We've got a lot of guys who will be moving up a level in terms of their roles," is the way Coach Houston Nutt characterized the situation. "It will be a transition for them and we need to them to step up and accept being the guy.
Nutt began with a senior, Wayne Dorsey, to start his evaluation.
"Wayne had a really good offseason until he stretched his Achilles tendon, but he should be ready to go by spring," Houston said. "He's been outstanding in the winter. He's about 270 now and I think he's going to turn the corner this year. He struggled some last year transitioning from junior college ball, but I think he's got the lay of the land now. He's definitely showing signs of that in the offseason.
"Wayne got off to a bad start last year and never fully recovered. He was used to being the dominant player on the field and when he jumped up into this man's league, so to speak, and wasn't dominant, it threw him for a loop. I think he's going to overcome that and have a breakout year as a senior. He's a prime example of why I wish I could redshirt every player we sign, but that's not reality in today's game."
Junior Jason Jones came on strong at the end of last year and has carried that over to the offseason program. He's another one Nutt has faith in.
"Oh my gosh. Workhorse. An absolute workhorse," noted Nutt. "He got a taste of playing last year after a couple of players went down with injury and he's just taken off since then. He needs to keep bringing it, for sure, but he's now on the right path. He looks great, now take it to the field."
The development of sophomore Cameron Whigham also drew Nutt's praise.
"Cameron is now about 256 and looking real good. He showed us some good signs last year as a wide-eyed freshman. Now, we expect him to take two steps forward and perform more as a veteran, even though he's still young," said Houston. "I'm looking for him to make that jump I was talking about."
At Bandit, Lockett won't be available for spring due to rehabbing his knee, but all parties are optimistic about him being granted a sixth year and being available in the fall. His leadership is vital to a "youngish" group.
One who will be available is junior Gerald Rivers, who did a nice job last year until he was slowed by injury.
"Carlos Thompson is coming on strong. He's 242 pounds now and I think will reach 250 by next fall. Carlos has a world of ability and works hard. We're trying to be patient while he matures, but that's hard. We see what he is going to be and we want him to be there now. He will be special if he stays on this track."
Sophomore Delvin Jones is trying to overcome knee surgery, a surgery that made him lose weight and he has not fully rehabbed yet.
Note: Obviously, junior D.T. Shackelford, who played a lot of DE last season, could figure into this picture if things don't pan out with the names mentioned, but Nutt wanted to discuss him with the linebackers for the time being.
At tackle, JUCO transfer Gilbert Pena drew Nutt's eye quickly while he perused the depth chart.
"Once he gets in shape, he's got a chance to be special. This offseason has been a shock to him, but he hasn't spit the bit with the demands of it. He still has to continue conditioning, but while he is fresh, he is very light on his feet for a guy who is over 330 pounds," Nutt assessed. "He is a load. I think he's going to be an excellent anchor. I think he is going to take care of his gaps. He's lost eight pounds and is coming on. I'm really glad he is here."
Nutt has also seen some movement in the right direction from Corey Gaines and Justin Smith.
"They are not difference-makers, but they have really matured and are coming on. They have made some advancements in the offseason that we needed to see from them. They have to step up. They have to produce," he noted. "Justin is over 290 now. Corey has felt the two redshirts breathing down his neck and he has made an offseason effort to hold them off."
The young bulls – Carlton Martin and Bryon Bennett – are everything Nutt hoped they would be when they signed out of Madison Central last year and took a redshirt their first season at Ole Miss.
"They have to play by default. I think they will be ready to help. We can't afford any injuries at DT. When we bring Uriah Grant in here in the summer, that helps a lot, but we need an injury-free spring at that position so they all can have a chance to develop further."
Nutt knows the score on the defensive line.
"These 15 spring practices will be extremely important to those positions and to the whole defense. Those guys have to grind and they have to grow up in a hurry," he closed. "I'm optimistic based on what I have seen in the offseason, but the big tale will be told with spring results."
Next Up: The Backers.