The Ole Miss defense is replacing both of its starting cornerbacks from last season.
And yet, there’s no sense of panic, no real concern from players and coaches. Actually, the Rebels are quite confident entering 2015. Credit the presence of decorated juniors Tee Shepard and Tony Bridges.
But the cornerback depth chart doesn’t end with its pair of former five-star prospects. Back for his sophomore season is Kendarius Webster, who played in every game a year ago with one start.
And he’s hungry.
His motivation is simple enough. Unlike during all of his freshman campaign, when he played with a brace to protect his surgically-repaired shoulder, Webster isn't lacking in confidence. He’s playing free, no longer limited in how he’s able to approach opposing wide receivers and running backs. And the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Webster is taking advantage of it.
“I don’t have to wear (the brace) now due to the fact that I’ve been strengthening all spring and summer. I feel like I’m ready to go with it full speed,” he said. “It was hard to adjust to balls in the air and fight for balls, but spring-wise I felt a lot different. I proved I can be physical with all the receivers and running backs.”
Webster wasn’t allowed to do much last August, his first fall camp as a Rebel. He didn’t get cleared for full football activities until close to kickoff of Ole Miss’ season-opening game against Boise State.
His college debut, the Chik-fil-A Kickoff, included a pair of solo tackles and a pass breakup - a glimpse of Webster’s talent and what made him a four-star prospect and the No. 25 cornerback in the country out of high school by Scout.com. Still, as the season wore on, he never felt fully like himself. The doubts about his shoulder lingered, hampering his play as Ole Miss delivered a 9-4 season.
He finished with 22 tackles and two pass breakups.
“I felt it, and in my heart I wasn’t really confident enough to get in there and actually play,” he said. “My teammates and my coaches encouraged me enough to play, because I was fresh out of surgery out of high school.”
“It restricted him some,” cornerbacks coach Jason Jones said. “I think it was more of a confidence issue with him, just knowing the brace was going to give him the support he needed and things like that. But I tell ‘ya, he had a great spring, he’s had a great summer and I’m looking for him to have a great camp. I’m looking for some big things out of him this season. He’s a guy that can definitely help us, and he has the ability to push those two guys to be a starter for us.”
Webster is no longer lacking in confidence. He said he knows the defense well now, so the goal of fall camp is simply to make plays. His preparation is better, too. Webster said he watches film more, which allows him to “pick up on little things that I don’t know.”
“Just talking to (Ole Miss strength and conditioning) coach (Paul) Jackson and those guys in the weight room, the strength now in his shoulders are the same, so his numbers in the weight room are up as far as what he’s bench-pressing and snatching and things like that,” Jones said.
“He was on a limited workout plan this spring; he really didn’t have a whole lot of time in the weight room to get stronger. So at times when he had to use the arm he had surgery on, the strength just wasn’t there. That slowed him down a little bit in the spring. But he’s been doing great all summer. He has a chance to push those guys.”
And he’s eager for the opportunity. Ole Miss returns the majority of a defense that led the nation in scoring defense and ranked Top 20 in total and passing defense. Webster believes the Rebels could be even better, and he hopes to be a big part of it.
“I’m very confident right now,” he said. “I’m ready to get out there and move forward.”