Football is all but back.
Ole Miss, an off-season removed from the second of back-to-back bowl seasons, opens fall practices Saturday morning. For Rebel fans, it’s been a long wait. The team, however, has kept busy in the summer months, as strength and conditioning coach Paul Jackson can attest.
“The summer was good,” he said. “It was oddly smooth. Normally in the off-season there’s bumps in the road, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. You want those adverse situations, those stress situations because they’re opportunities to teach and learn. That’s when you’re growing, when things are uncomfortable.
“Oddly, this summer went very smoothly, as far as their performance with me. Guys staying healthy for the most part, and everybody knowing what’s expected. It was a very positive summer for us.”
Ole Miss signed a full 25-man recruiting class in February. Six enrolled in December and participated in spring practices, while two, Tee Shepard and Chris Williams, were forced to sit out the summer due to academics.
Nineteen new Rebels were given their first taste of the demands of college football. Jackson liked what he saw.
“This summer went very smoothly, as far as their performance with me. It was a very positive summer for us.”
“I think the newcomers who got here early, that’s a huge advantage for those guys. So C.J. Hampton, Marquis Haynes, Kendrick Doss and Fahn Cooper – those guys who got here in the spring – they were obviously way ahead of the game. When summer got here, they’re almost like vets. They know exactly what’s going on; they’ve been in the program for a while,” Jackson said.
“As a group, all those kids came in and they’re a very aggressive-minded group. They wanted to attack it. They wanted to do everything. Our freshmen, when they first get here, we’re on a 4-8 week program, which is different from everybody else. This particular group, they didn’t like that at all. They wanted to do what everybody else was doing. I had to explain to them why what we were doing is the best for your long-term development. They came in with the right mindset. Physically, they weren’t ready to keep up right away. But there’s some great bodies in that class. There’s an aggressive, nasty attitude to the class that I really like, and over time I think it’s going to help our football team.”
Obviously, much attention is being paid to the dynamic sophomore quartet of Laremy Tunsil, Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Tony Conner. Each was named a freshman All-American last season, and they haven’t lacked for preseason honors either.
Jackson said Tunsil, who was named preseason All-SEC first team by league media two weeks ago, has been the most improved player on the roster over the last calendar year. Lofty praise considering Tunsil allowed all of one sack in nine starts as Ole Miss’ starting left tackle as a true freshman.
“Laremy Tunsil is, I would say, from last summer to this summer, the most improved player in our strength and conditioning program, and that’s scary to say when you think of how well he played last year,” Jackson said. “But from a strength and conditioning standpoint, he was way behind last summer. He was overweight. He was up around 330 and didn’t really push through it, didn’t really work that hard for us last summer. He was kind of in that ‘Let me get to the season and show y’all what I can do’ mode. He was always a good kid and was going to do what he was supposed to do, show up on time and those things. I was a little worried because he went into the season and had the success that he had. I was thinking, well, now you’ve got a kid who knows he’s a really good player and he really didn’t have to work that hard in the off-season program, so I might never get the chance to reel him back in and buy into the program.
“But the exact opposite is true. He cranked it up 10 more levels. I mean, everything about him – his leadership, the way he worked with his conditioning, the strength gains – everything with Laremy was tremendous. His strength is his athleticism; his footwork, his balance and his coordination. So, those are things he’s gifted with. True brute strength isn’t one of them. I don’t know if he’ll ever be Daronte Bouldin-type strong. That’s not his game, that’s not what he’s blessed with. But he did make significant strength gains where I’d say he’s now at a very good SEC-lineman level in terms of strength.”
Nkemdiche posted 34 tackles, including 25 solos, two sacks, two pass breakups and three quarterback hurries last season. He was named to watch lists for the Lombardi Award, Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Outland Trophy earlier this month.
“Robert Nkemdiche is a machine,” Jackson said. “He was last year. He came in from day one ready to attack our workouts. He did that, and he continues to push every day and give us what we want from him. His body weight got down a little bit after the season, in the 275-280 range. He’s back up to 290. He’s probably somewhere around nine percent body fat. He’s just a specimen.”
Treadwell, a Biletnikoff Award watch list member, has assumed the role of No. 1 receiver following the departure of Donte Moncrief, who opted to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL Draft. He was selected by the Indianapolis Colts in the third round.
Treadwell was voted SEC Freshman of the Year by the league coaches after he set Ole Miss freshman records for catches (72), receiving yards (6-8) and touchdown catches (5) in a season. His 72 catches were the second-most in a season in school history.
“Laquon Treadwell is a big, strong, physical receiver. What we’re working on with him is his initial acceleration and his explosiveness,” Jackson said. “He’s really focused hard on that this summer and he’s a guy who when he gets positive feedback, he really feeds off that. So, if we were doing drills this summer and he felt it, he felt himself do it right, that helped him with the buy-in and to really work on that stuff. But beyond that, his mobility. His ankle and hip mobility were issues where if he improves them, it’s going to help him in and out of breaks and stuff like that. It’s going to help him stay low when he’s blocking and those things.
“One of the things we do (to improve that) is our back squat. The squat’s a strength movement, but it’s also a great flexibility assessment tool. He did a lot of soft-tissue work, a lot of mobility work, and now he’s pumped up that his squat looks like everybody else’s squat.”
Last but not least, Conner, who played in every game with 12 starts at huskie, used the off-season to trim down. Conner, a preseason All-SEC second team selection, was third on the team with 66 tackles in his debut season.
“Tony Conner, like a lot of those guys from Batesville, he’s just a true, blue football player. He does a great job communicating with me and being here and being accountable to his teammates and being a leader in those ways. But he’s not the strongest guy, the fastest guy. But he brings it every day. He’s a hard worker and he’s going to do everything he can to improve. He’s not naturally gifted with a lot of the stuff that we do, but he does take it seriously.
“He’s leaned out a lot, so you know he’s actually up to 217, 218. His body fat is down tremendously. That will help him with in-game conditioning, as well as being able to run with some of those faster slot guys. He’s a big dude, but he’s going to be chasing those little slot guys around. I think that’ll help him out in those areas. Where he excels, and it’s no wonder he’s good at football, is whenever we do reactive, change-of-direction drills where he has to move on command or on a signal or color or word and then take his move and execute, that’s the things he does really, really well.”
Jackson was asked of off-season surprises. Quarterback Jeremy Liggins came to mind first.
“Jeremy Liggins is a guy who jumps out at me with that. He struggled so much in the spring trying to run with us and just the work we do every day. He just struggled. He wasn’t in good enough shape to really go out there and compete and show the type of athlete he was,” he said.
“This summer, he did a great job. He’s still big, now. He’s still right around 290. But it’s a totally different looking 290. His body has changed, and he’s committed to really pushing hard and running. When he first got here, he gravitated more towards the linemen; that’s who he felt most comfortable running with. As summer went on, he started running with those mid-skill guys – the tight ends, linebackers and quarterbacks. Even though he’s probably 50 pounds heavier than the next-biggest guy in that group, he could run with them. He did an outstanding job.”
Liggins wasn’t alone in impressing Jackson.
“Mike Hilton is a guy who from day one has always given us lots of effort but has kind of struggled with our conditioning, with the way we do,” he said. “This summer he did an excellent job. Year three in a system, you kind of feel like you know what a guy’s got. But he showed me he’s got even more than I thought he did. I was definitely happy with those guys.”
With the summer winding down, the Rebels now shift focus to practice and their season-opening matchup with Boise State in Atlanta, Ga., as a part of the Chik-fil-A kickoff Aug. 28.
Jackson is eager to see the fruits of the Rebels' summer labor.
“Of the three years we’ve been here, this would get the highest letter grade,” Jackson said. “This summer hopefully lets us stay in shape during the season and let’s us have an even better winter.”