What To Look For

Coming off a 2-10 season with a first-year coaching staff, there are questions galore about the Ole Miss Rebel football team for 2012. Most of those will be answered, starting with Saturday's first open practice, in training camp.

Perusing my extensive collection of spring training notes, I came across many more question marks than definitive statements.

For the Ole Miss Rebels, the questions remain as August drills crank up Saturday with an open practice at 9:45 that morning. (There will be a closed walk-through/special teams practice today.)

The following are things I will be looking for as we prepare to do our daily reports and updates on Rebel football.

* Rebel Coach Hugh Freeze wants to run an up-tempo offense. No huddle, signals from the sidelines, snap the ball quickly, wear out the defense. He was not able to do a lot of that in spring training due to the learning process and the physical condition of the offensive players. Strength & Conditioning Coach Paul Jackson emphasized conditioning in the summer workouts and the Rebel pass the look test of being in shape for the rigors of the Oregon-esque offense Freeze wants to employ, but the proof will be in the pudding of August drills. How quickly will the players be able to adapt to this style and how much of it will Hugh feel comfortable using when the season rolls around? It is definitely key that they "get it" as quickly as possible because that style of play is expected to be an advantage and the Rebels need all the advantages they can muster this year.

* This is not a knock on our team, just fact, from my viewpoint. The Rebs will have some voids in talent, depth and experience this year. Consequently, the coaches have to plan accordingly. To me, that means taking a few more risks strategically on both sides of the ball than they may want to. The danger is that even the best-planned, calculated gambles, which can produce big plays, can backfire and create big plays going the other way. How much will Freeze and company throw caution to the wind and just "go for it?" It will be interesting to see how aggressively, from a philosophical standpoint, they coach. That's probably not an August practice question/answer, but during August, when they are piecing everything together and figuring out what's what, that factor will have to be part of the equation.

Bo Wallace
File Photo

* I've never been around a good-to-great football team that didn't have good-to-great leaders on the field. Who has emerged in that capacity? Who will emerge in those roles? All the summer chatter has indicated Middle Linebacker Mike Marry, a fairly soft-spoken guy most of his career, has become more vocal. That's encouraging - they will listen to Mike because he won't ask any of them to do anything he won't do or hasn't done already. But more is needed. Certainly, on offense, you automatically look at the quarterback - leadership is built into that position since he does most of the talking. One thing to note: Leadership cannot be forced, it has to flow. Where will the flow on this team come from? Definitely worth watching for.

* From a personnel standpoint, one of the biggest question marks coming out of spring was the offensive line. While most maintain Freeze's offense "helps" offensive linemen, we still play in the SEC, the biggest, baddest conference in college football and it's that way because the biggest, baddest defensive linemen in the nation reside in this league. Will this group gel into a unit that will give this offense time to operate? They came on a little stronger at the end of spring, but it was obvious to all, and stated by all, they have that proverbial "long way to go." Now is the time to cut into that journey. Can they? Will they? Personally, I think they are underrated, but the gap between underrated and real good is large and there is definite ground to make up.

* Ahh, quarterback. Much has been made about who will win the job, if Freeze will play two, which of Barry Brunetti or Bo Wallace fits the offense the best and where does Randall Mackey play in all of this. Trust me, it will all come out in the wash. Someone will rise to the top, most likely, but if not, I have a reserved confidence in the ability of all three. I also have a vision of seeing all three on the field at the same time. After all, they are three of our better playmakers and wouldn't that be cool. Who will it be? To me, it's just an unanswered question, not a point of worry at this point based on what I saw in spring from the different candidates. I believe we have bigger issues than QB. I realize others don't feel that way, and they could be right, but I'll hold my ground until proven otherwise.

Carlos Thompson
File Photo

* Who will be the "step up" guys? Every year, every team - including powerhouse teams - has to have guys who make a performance jump by a notch or two to be successful. Unfortunately, the Rebels have more that need to make that leap than you would ideally like. The Rebels desperately need guys like DE Carlos Thompson, S Chief Brown, CBs Dehendret Collins and Senquez Golson, LBs Aaron Garbutt and Keith Lewis, RB Nick Parker, WRs Vincent Sanders, Terrell Grant and Tobias Singleton, OL Patrick Junen, Pierce Burton and Evan Swindall, DTs Carlton Martin, Gilbert Pena and Woodrow Hamilton, to name just a few, to emerge much better than they have ever been. It's asking a lot for all of them to elevate their games to the needed level, but to coin a favorite Rebel phrase, it's time. They should all be ready to take two steps forward without taking one step back.

* As it is most every year, health is important. It's probably even a bigger factor this season with the Rebs' depth the way it is. (Mr. Stating The Obvious here.) Knowing that, the question that will be asked and answered in August is how tough can Freeze make fall camp? The Rebels definitely need to be more physical and tougher than they were a year ago, but how much can Hugh and the coaches risk and how much hitting will they be comfortable with in August? Good judgment in both areas - being smart about health issues and getting more physical - is critical. Both are needed, but how much of one can you get without risking the other? Only Freeze knows.

* Another important ingredient, perhaps the most important, is the mentality of the team. They attacked spring, they attacked summer, they attacked their academic and behavioral issues and came out on the other end better for it. Those are all great signs for recovering from a 2-10 season a year ago, but it's necessary to keep a close eye on their overall confidence level. Do they think they can win? Do they believe they can win? Do they know they can win? Confidence is a very fragile commodity in sports - just watch the Olympics and see the ones who rise to the top and those who falter. They are all great at what they do or they wouldn't be there, yet some perform and some don't. Confidence and catching lightning in a bottle is what it is all about. What about the Rebels?

I'm positive most Rebel fans have many more questions, especially on an individual basis, but these will be the ones I focus on for at least a week or two.

There's one thing I am already certain of, however, and I witnessed it in brief romps through the IPF this summer.

I believe this is a team with a purpose and direction and I can sense a general feeling of having something to prove.

That's a good start.

Hold on - sorting it all out is going to be fun.

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