Ole Miss Strength & Conditioning Coach Paul Jackson watches every practice rep, drill and play intensely, oftentimes turning very vocal about the outcome and always enthusiastic about anything done properly.
Not only does he love that part of his job, but his practice observations are critical for evaluation purposes in determining what each player needs to improve on as another offseason, summer and football season bears down on the Rebels.
With half the coaches on the football staff being “new,” he was obviously anxious to see how the team, who had gone through a brief five-week offseason program under his staff’s guidance in January and February, would respond.
“Spring training was somewhat of a shock to the guys in some respects,” Jackson began, in his frank evaluation. “They were trying to learn a new system and they were trying to adhere to some different demands, especially from Coach (Wesley) McGriff (the new defensive coordinator) and how he runs his practices.
“Coach McGriff makes them do little things they haven't done before, like keep their helmets on the whole practice and chase down every loose ball, even incomplete passes. It was just different to them and a shock for several practices. Then, once they adapted to the practice demands, coupled with the learning curve of a new system, spring was basically over. Consequently, I didn’t think we looked as good overall as I would have liked physically because of those factors – the new demands and the new system.”
It's difficult for a strength and conditioning coach to prepare for that much “new,” but Jackson didn't accept that as a reason for any spring deficiencies.
“I always believe we can prepare the players for anything they'll face, but our training is more general and practice is more specific. You can try to emulate practice, but it doesn’t always translate that way in practice and most of it this year was the newness of it all,” he continued. “The kids were prepared physically for what was coming in spring, but not mentally. They have to live through that and go through the demands and differences.
“Don’t get me wrong, this staff and our players got a lot done in spring training, but I believe next fall and next spring is when they'll really blossom in the new systems and with the demands, demands they'll be used to by then.”
In general, Jackson is working with a young team age-wise, but a young team that has gained a lot of experience in terms of having played quite a bit.
“We’ve got guys like Myles Hartsfield, A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, Greg Little, Alex Givens, Sean Patterson, Van Jefferson, Jaylon Jones and several more who are going to be playing big roles who don’t have a lot of maturity and we have a senior class that doesn't have a great deal of impact players, so from that standpoint, you would call us young, but some of those young guys have a lot of reps under their belts,” he explained. “The difference this year is those young kids aren't going to be shocked as much as they were last year.
“This is their team now and it will be for the next two or three years. Like I said, we aren't going to set the woods on fire in the weight room this year compared to the standard of SEC schools, but we're OK, and I think the players are going to have a different level of confidence and a different attitude.”
So do strength and speed numbers always spell victory? Apparently not.
“Last year, we put up the best strength and speed numbers as a team we ever have since I've been here (five years, going on six) and we didn’t win many games,” Jackson noted. “You could see all that in our Pro Day numbers – they were excellent, but it didn’t carry over to games.
“We won’t be at the levels we were last year in the weight room or in the sprints, but I think we'll carry over things to the field better and it’s exciting because with a young team, you know the strength and speed numbers are going to gradually keep going up.”
Jackson and his staff have made some adjustments to what they will do this offseason/summer as August rapidly approaches.
“We are running more open-ended drills, drills where they have to think while they're performing. We're doing cognitive exercises, making sure they can think and process information while they move quickly,” stated Jackson. “A guy may have a great 5-10-5 drill, but he goes to the field and he looks like he can’t move because he's mentally locked up.
“We're doing a lot more drills where we're getting them to think while they're moving instead of just running drills mindlessly.”
In the weight room, Jackson is encouraged, not because the numbers are great, but because he knows they will be soon.
“We have young guys who are already pretty good at football who aren’t nearly as strong as they're going to get. When we get them stronger, which will be soon, they'll be beasts, in the weight room and on the field. To me, that's exciting.
“We want guys who can play ball first and then we get them in our program and polish them up and max them out. We have a lot of guys who are in that mold – good football players who are just now starting to blossom in the weight room. When they do, look out.”
He cited a couple of prime examples: LT Greg Little and WR A.J. Brown.
“Both of them came in unprepared in strength and conditioning. Way behind, but we knew they were going to play because their football skills were way ahead,” Jackson continued. “Greg has changed his body composition and his movement is so much better from when he reported here a year ago. His conditioning is far advanced from what it was before last season. He can still get stronger, but he will as he continues attacking the weight room. His core strength is so much better too.
“A.J. was a multiple-sport athlete in high school and he never did much weight room stuff or hard training. Now that he's in a structured program, his body has taken off. In spring, you could tell how much faster he is now. He was already a super talented football player, but now he's added more speed to his arsenal. He ran away from people in spring.”
Jackson said he liked the way the offensive line set the pace and tone of not only the offseason session before spring training, but spring training as well.
“Matt Luke has done a tremendous job of developing an offensive line, something that takes time and patience. Now, we have two and three-year starters on our squad and we have young guys who are coming on now as well,” he noted. “We're in a good situation there and still only have two rising seniors we will lose after next season, Daronte Bouldin and Rod Taylor, who have developed so much since they've been here it’s amazing.
“We’ve got guys like Jordan Sims, who came here over 370 pounds and now has his weight under control and has continued to be more and more of a leader, like several of the o-linemen,” Paul said. “Guys like Javon (Patterson) came in strong and he's now working on his mobility and lower body flexibility. His offseason shoulder surgery is a blessing in disguise really because he can’t work upper body, which he really doesn’t need much of, but he can focus solely on lower body, which he does need. We can get him away from the group and work on more specifics and tailor his workout specifically for what he needs.
“Sean Rawlings came in here with a little chip on his shoulder knowing that a lot of people thought he couldn't play in the SEC. He's in here all the time putting in the extra work because he's motivated. Now he's 300 pounds, strong and he's a legitimate SEC lineman and a leader. Alex Givens is another one who has changed so much from the time he came here – the redshirt was great for him – and now looks and plays like an SEC o-lineman.”
There are new challenges for the offensive linemen that Jackson also recognizes.
“Our guards and centers are taking on a different situation now with the wider splits in Coach (Phil) Longo’s offense. They're almost like tackles now with the space they have to play in so better movement and adjusting to that demand will be critical for them as we move forward,” he explained. “We'll work movement hard with that group in the offseason as we prepare for August.”
Staying up front, on the defensive side of the ball, Breeland Speaks returned to his 2015 form in spring and for Jackson is was a sight for sore eyes.
“Whatever it was that led to him not playing well last year, I can say this, it was not the work in our room. He loves the weight room. He works as hard as anyone. Breeland told the media he was depressed last season about some things and had some off field issues that he needed to correct. Football was not fun for him anymore and he checked out a little bit. He kept it to himself instead of telling us about it and by then the season was over,” Jackson assessed. “He got those things taken care of since the season ended and now he's back to playing with passion and enthusiasm. It's so good to see him smiling and having fun again. He had a great spring and he's gradually gaining back the weight he lost last year.
“Benito (Jones) is still a young kid but he's strong, explosive and twitchy. He’s a real laid back guy, so my emphasis with him is to have more urgency. Yes, he’s a good player and great kid, but don’t be content to be good, stay motivated and be great. He's a beast and our job is to make sure we max him out over the next three years.”
The Rebs need a couple of more DTs to emerge and the hope is that Josiah Coatney will be one of them. Based on his spring showing, Jackson feels he will be.
“What people don’t know about Josiah is that he didn't play much football before he got here. He’s had shoulder issues and knee issues prior to coming here and he didn't have access to the aggressive type of rehab we have here,” Jackson said. “At first, he had movement issues, but now that he's rehabbed and he's healthy, he's moving much better and he definitely has a good motor. He's a high-effort player. He's starting to feel like himself again and it's showing on the field. He's night and day from what he was when he got here.”
The defensive ends are led by Marquis Haynes and Victor Evans, who everyone knows a lot about, but what about Qaadir Sheppard and Charles Wiley, relative newcomers who the Rebs need to come on strong for the DL to be all it can be?
“Victor has really stepped up his game. He’s now in the 260 range and has been very consistent on the field and in our room,” Jackson noted. “Qaadir is a physical specimen. He carries himself like a football player. He showed good twitch in spring. Consistency is now the next step; he certainly has the physical tools. He's now 265 pounds, so we have to make sure that's a good weight for him. Bigger, faster and in great shape is always good if a player can handle all three, but sometimes you have to manipulate the bigger part to max out a player’s potential. Q may need to lose five or 10 pounds to max out his skills. That is what we will try to figure out and work on.
“Charles took a major step. He's naturally explosive and gifted. He can run, jump and lift good numbers for someone his age. That is not the problem. The problem was when things got hard. Due to his youth, he would give in sometimes. Now, he has trucked through that in our room. Now he has to get through that mindset on the field, and he will. When he does, he can be special. He had to get over the shock of being blocked or not being dominant like he was in high school. All of that will come around for him. He'll learn to compete and push through adversity and end up a really good football player.”
Obviously, there are other pertinent stories on this team of 120 players, such as the return of Jordan Wilkins, but not all could be touched on in one interview. D.K. Metcalf, Myles Hartsfield, Zedrick Woods, DeMarquis Gates, Detric Bing-Dukes and many more also got the nod of approval from Jackson about their spring performances.
“Jordan could have coasted through his ordeal last year, but he embraced it. He never got down on himself. I was super proud of the way he attacked things. He's strong, lean and in great shape. If he plays as well as he's tests as an athlete, we'll be just fine,” Jackson said..
As a keen observer, Jackson knows one of the issues from last season was a lack of the right kind of leadership. So what about the leadership factor moving forward?
“Right after the last game last season, Coach (Hugh) Freeze approached everyone on the staff about developing leadership and how critical that would be this time around,” Jackson stated. “We brought in some special forces guys at the start of spring ball to get some things going in that area – to see who would stick through thick and thin.
“The three areas I thought we were lacking in last year were passion, toughness and a team commitment. Like I said earlier, we had great strength, run and jump numbers last year but we just didn't have the passion we had in 2015. That group had excellent leaders. It was a player-led team. They got results without as much guidance from us. The 2016 group was very easy to work with, they did what we asked them to do, but they didn’t seem to have guys who stepped up and took charge as much as the year before. They leaned on us too much instead of orchestrating things themselves and taking charge.
“To help fix that, we are bringing in every player – the whole team – at the same time for workouts. They'll all be together. Their complete position groups will be together for every workout. We need them operating together and we need to see who will hold who accountable. The o-line has taken the first step, but then the d-line joined in and it trickled down from there. I'm very anxious to see how this method works in regards to developing more leadership and unity and passion moving forward through the summer and into next season.”
As Jackson starts another training cycle – he’s right up against the summer workouts – his enthusiasm has not waned.
“This team, this program, has a lot of good things going right now. I think we'll see some big improvements in 2017,” he closed.
Certainly music to the ears of all Rebels.