Changing The Culture

Spring training was about so much more than who was individually doing well on the playing field. While that was important, it was about changing the culture of Ole Miss football. Read about it inside.

"How they looking?"

I hear it every day, at least once, sometimes more.

Those inquiring aren't talking about my tomato plants or the litter of feral kittens I adopted at my office or the newest crop of coeds on campus, but I know that instinctively.

It's football, baby. Spring football, to be exact.

The questions abound about who the quarterback will be, how the lines are progressing, what the depth chart is and who are the surprises of spring football.

What does so-and-so weigh now and does he look faster?

While those questions are relevant, they are, no offense intended to anyone, not what's important right now, unfortunately.

Believe it or not, new Ole Miss Coach Hugh Freeze and his staff have bigger fish to fry.

While it certainly matters what the depth chart is, who will be leading the offense and how the defensive line will hold up in the 2012 season, the pertinent question – that most fans don't want to ask – should be is the culture of Ole Miss football changing?

Anyone who has suffered through reading my "stuff" for over three decades knows I'm no gloom-and-doomer. I take the positive slant whenever possible, but right now, I think it's critical to tell the whole story.

Freeze and company have had to start from ground zero in terms of team attitude, commitment, loyalty, confidence, discipline and academic structure.

Randall Mackey
File Photo

On the surface, a 2-10 record in 2011 should have been enough of a sign to know things were astray, but after digging a little deeper, the 2-10 was just one of the worries. The 2-10 was a result of all the other things brewing behind the scenes and under the surface.

Academically, nearly a fourth of the scholarship players are on probation. Nearly a sixth of the scholarship players did not pass the minimum of nine hours during the fall semester, meaning they are in danger of being suspended the first four games of the 2012 season per NCAA rules – a new rule by the way.

There are behavioral issues as well, that I will not delve into, but any thinking person can guess the nature of.

Along the way, a lot of that filtered into the work ethic of the players and the team concept.

In short, Freeze did not inherit a team that was simply lacking in talent. He inherited a team that was lacking just about every way it could be lacking.

The new staff hit the ground running and hasn't stop, nor will they, until the murky waters start to clear. How long will that be? The unanswerable question. Suffice it to say there is much more to be done to change the culture of Ole Miss football and hard steps are being taken to change it.

During this day-to-day transformation, however, there was spring football and it's more fun discussing that than all of the "issues" going on inside the program.

So let's get back to the question everyone wants to know – how they looking?

Overall, the defense, led by Dave Wommack, ruled the day most of spring training. He came at the offense will both barrels blazing and nothing left in the chamber. From day one, he threw blitzes and movement and different looks at the offense and it was more, on most days, than the offense, in the midst of learning a new system, could handle.

DL Coach Chris Kiffin, aided ably by former Rebel great and NFL star Derrick Burgess, seems to be ahead of the pace I predicted. Certainly, they are not a finished product, but they are improved, it says here. Some of that is better conditioning, some of it is learning some new techniques, some of it is the aggressive and attacking nature of Wommack's calls, and some of it is the experience and maturity most of them gained from playing last year.

It was disappointing DT Bryon Bennett missed most of spring training with a banged up ankle, but besides that, I think they all, as a group, got better. Jason Jones, Cameron Whigham, Gerald Rivers, Carlos Thompson, C.J. Johnson, Carlton Martin, Woody Hamilton and Gilbert Pena all got quality reps during spring and advanced their play. (Uriah Grant was having a fine spring until a shoulder injury sidelined him.)

Tom Allen's linebackers were also the beneficiary of the downhill style the Rebels will employ. Allen requires "relentless pursuit of the ball" and, for the most part, his guys are playing that way. The defensive staff also added some speed to that area by moving Aaron Garbutt and Denzel Nkemdiche from safety and that has helped out in their pressure packages. Mike Marry, Joel Kight, Ralph Williams and Serderius Bryant come to mind quickly as players who will impact those two positions. At Husky, the hybrid position, Brishen Mathews and Ivan Nicholas were steady and solid most of spring.

Woody Hamilton
File Photo

In the secondary, Safety Charles Sawyer and CB Wesley Pendleton have been very good. Safety Chief Brown is coming on as well, but he's still a bit rough around the edges. JUCO CB Dehendret Collins also had a very good spring for his first effort at this level. Naturally, all eyes will be watching to see where Nick Brassell ends up. He instantly makes any unit on the team better and it seems as though the coaches like him at corner better than on offense, although he will play both. Cody Prewitt is also very viable at safety and will push for a starting berth in fall.

If pushed, I'd give the defense a solid C grade for spring. They made steady strides, but they have plenty of room for growth and improvement, and the potential to do so.

The offense, as anticipated, took longer to get going, and I doubt Freeze and Co-OCs Dan Werner and Matt Luke are as "happy" as they'd like to be, but are probably about where they expected to be, if that makes any sense.

There was so much going on with that side of the ball, advancement was going to be more difficult and take longer than on the defensive side. A new system, a new tempo, some new personnel on the offensive line, coaches and players getting used to each other, and taking on an attack defense every day were all major tests for the Rebel offense.

The personnel pictures started clearing up some, but there's still a lot of work to be done between now and the first game in September.

Freeze and Luke have often stated they expected the offensive line to take the most time to gain the necessary unity and chemistry, so them being a little behind is no shocker. It appears the top five coming out of spring is LT Emmanuel McCray, LG Aaron Morris, C Evan Swindall, RG A.J. Hawkins and RT Pierece Burton, with the top reserves, at this point, being Patrick Junen and Justin Bell. The jury is still out on this group but by the end of spring they were starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel.

At quarterback, as of now, it appears to be a two-man race between Barry Brunetti, who has improved his passing skills, and Bo Wallace, who is nipping at Barry's heels. Both had inconsistencies in spring, but showed flashes of competence enough to give the position some hope.

Jeff Scott, Nick Parker, Devin Thomas and, surprise, Tobias Singleton were the top backs. Jeff is the bell cow, Nick has improved, Devin is steady and Tobias has a burst.

At TE, veterans Ferbia Allen, Jamal Mosley and E.J. Epperson didn't have the spring the coaches were hoping for, but more is anticipated in fall camp.

Out wide, Donte Moncrief, Ja-Mes Logan and Collins Moore, with the addition of Randall Mackey late in spring, are a solid foundation to build on.

As you can see, there was a lot going on in spring training and it wasn't all about football.

The offseason will be critical, both in developing more strength and stamina and in academic progress. Freeze and his staff will continue on the path of changing the culture and the hope is that a lot of that will kick in by fall.

It's critical it does.

Stay tuned.

This is the first in a series of articles printed in the Grove Bowl issue of The Ole Miss Spirit. We will reprint them all here in the next 10 days to two weeks for those unable to attend the spring game.

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