True freshmen getting playing time in SEC football is not that unusual anymore.
Thanks to better high school training and summer camps and specialization, more and more players are coming out of the prep ranks ready for college action.
But imagine the plight of 2014 freshman Markell Pack.
Deep into August practice the 6-3, 180-pound Purvis native was trying to learn the Ole Miss offense and biding his time as a backup punt returner. It was a relatively stress-free time for Pack.
That changed abruptly. . . .
Not too long before the season opener against Boise State, top punt return man Carlos Davis, who had groomed for the job for over a year, tore up his knee, out for the season.
Suddenly Pack, as green as St. Patrick’s Day, was THE GUY for the critical job of fielding punts, a job much different than it was as little as a few years ago.
“Punt return is much more difficult than it has ever been,” said Rebel Coach Hugh Freeze. “Punters and coaches used to worry about hang time and distance, but the return men these days are too good. Now, we are looking for ways to still get good distance, but we are trying to keep the ball away from return men or make them uncomfortable fielding the ball.
“Now, it’s rare to just try to kick it straight at a returner as far as you can. We now try to rugby style, directional punt, end over end punts – anything to make the return man’s job more difficult. When you add in the judgment call of fair catching or trying to make a return with 10 guys coming down on you at full speed, it’s just not that easy to do.”
But it was Pack’s crucial job less than a couple of months after he hit campus.
There were struggles and judgment issues at times, but Markell hung in there.
“I felt I gradually got better and got more comfortable back there, but it was definitely hard and definitely something new for me,” Markell said. “That ball can take some crazy bounces and you have to decide pretty quickly what you need to do.
“I made some mistakes, but I didn’t make any critical mistakes that hurt my team badly.”
Now, Davis is back and, if the Grove Bowl was any indication, Carlos is being penciled in as the punt returner for 2015, allowing Markell to concentrate on his first love – wide receiver.
Markell caught 14 passes for 173 yards in 2014, but he knows he can achieve much more out wide.
He was having a good spring, but a freak accident cost him a few days.
“I was blocking on a play and my helmet came off. I turned and someone hit me right in the mouth with their helmet. It knocked out my two front teeth and busted up my lip, but I’m OK now,” Pack noted.
When he came back to finish the remainder of spring ball, Pack was satisfied with where it ended in terms of his development.
“The pace, the tempo, is where I had difficulty last year. Now, I’ve got everything down. It’s all slowed down for me now and I’ve got it figured out now,” he noted.
The wide receiver slots are chock full of competent players, meaning strong competition for playing time, but that does not bother Pack. In fact, Markell feels it makes him a better player.
“It’s about competition. The competition motivates us all to do better and to focus better,” said Markell. “We all want to be assets in the offense and I think it is healthy. We are all close and we are pulling for each other. We feel there is enough playing time to go around.
“We have a lot of good players out wide and we have some more coming in with a couple of really good freshmen. We are going to have a lot of firepower and I want to be a piece of that.”
Working with three quarterbacks on equal ground in spring training might seem difficult, but Markell said it was no big deal.
“They all have good arms and they are all out there competing. I couldn’t tell a lot of difference. We’ll have good chemistry when the season rolls around, whoever the QB is,” he closed.
And this time around, Markell Pack will not be a true freshman.
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