On The Cusp

The 2012 regular football season was special for a lot of reasons, but one is how several players blossomed during that year. As we gaze into the crystal ball, quite a few more could be on the verge of the same type of growth in their careers.

When fall camp began, nobody really knew what to expect, but everyone following the Rebels' football plight realized if there was to be success in the 2012 season, Ole Miss was going to have to get help from some unexpected sources.

That took place when guys like WR Vincent Sanders, LB Denzel Nkemdiche, S Trae Elston, Huskie Mike Hilton, S Cody Prewitt and DT Issac Gross emerged as not only help, but impactful players.

"Those guys, and some more, certainly met or exceeded our hopes for them. We didn't know how they would respond at the time, but they came through for us," said Coach Hugh Freeze. "Now, we will need that same type of 'stepping up' next year from a new list."

Who does that list include? Who is on the cusp of breaking out and taking their games to the next level?

Nobody knows for sure, but here, in no particular order, are some educated guesses based on factors such as steady progress, work ethic and want-to noted throughout the season.

Obviously, there are probably some omissions and misses, but predicting the future is a precarious, at best, endeavor to begin with.

OL Patrick Junen: The second half of the season, OL Coach Matt Luke started trusting Junen more and more. He filled in at four positions at one time or another and is penciled in to take graduating LG A.J. Hawkins' place in the starting lineup in 2013.

Woodrow Hamilton
File Photo

LB Serderius "Bird" Bryant: The knock in fall camp and early in the season was that Bryant was not diligent in learning his assignments or playing within the confines of the system - too much freelancing. Toward the end of the year, he improved those area, started getting more playing time and made plays. If he will maintain that focus and discipline in his play, he could have an impact next season.

WR Cody Core: Somewhat like Bird, Core has had to gain the trust of WR Coach Grant Heard in terms of learning his assignments. In the meantime, he became a demon on special teams. There is no questioning his athletic ability. He's got size and speed and ball skills, but it may be that he ends up on the defensive side of the ball at safety when all is said and done. Either way, he's on the verge of breaking through.

DT Carlton Martin: Martin has been an enigma. He has the skill set of Gross and he's 35-40 pounds heavier and one of the strongest players on the team. He should be making a lot of noise. If he can rev up his motor, he has a chance to reach the potential most see in him.

DE Channing Ward: It's just a matter of time. The highly-touted freshman arrived late and was very raw on the field and in the weight room. Just be patient. There is a beast in the making.

TB Jaylen Walton and TB I'tavius Mathers: Even though their skill sets are different, they are under the same umbrella of potential. It's just a matter of more development and opportunity. In Monday's practice, both broke long runs and showed why their futures are bright.

LB Temario Strong: The redshirt who drew the most raves on the scout teams during the season was Strong. At times, Freeze had to take him off the scout team defense so the offense could get something done. Strong is a very physical player. It's just a matter of learning the system for him.

Justin Bell
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DE Carlos Thompson: Like Martin, everyone is just waiting for the light to come on. Reportedly, the redshirt this year has helped his maturity level and growth, on and off the field. Nobody doubts his raw talent. Now it's time to put it to use.

OG Justin Bell: Bell will battle Junen for Hawkins' vacant spot, and may win the job, but in the meantime, he has gained Luke's trust as a reliable backup. He's close, real close, to getting to that next level.

DT Woodrow Hamilton: DL Coach Chris Kiffin believes Hamilton has the raw ability to make an impact. He missed several games, and lots of practice reps, during the season due to injury. That threw his learning curve behind, but spring training should help catch him up. He should come out of the spring and fall camp scrums in the DT rotation for 2013.

CB Quintavious Burdette: Burdette was moved all over the secondary during the fall, but it appears he will settle in at corner now, a position he likes even though he has never played there before. Special teams experience in 2012 helped him learn the speed of the game. 2013 could be his year to step up, but if not, definitely 2014.

LB Keith Lewis: Missing all of last spring threw him behind the eight ball in learning the system. Toward the end of the year, he started catching up and got more playing time. With a good spring, he will challenge for substantial playing time.

S Chief Brown: Brown found himself between a rock and a hard place in 2012. He was behind both Prewitt and Elston and was learning two positions, which, in essence, did not allow him to "master" either. With a good spring, expect Chief to have a bigger impact in 2013.

As you can see, there are quite a few players who have the chance to climb up the ladder. It will be up to them and how they take advantage of the offseason and spring training.

But there is also the unknown factor.

It's a long time between now and September 2013 and that means plenty of opportunity for others to emerge as well.

Meanwhile, it's going to be interesting watching these players, and whoever else pops out of the woodwork, progress and start to make a more indelible mark on the squad.

Several blossomed during 2012. Who will it be this year?

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