At my brother's wedding yesterday, I had at least 10 people saunter up to me and ask "how's it going?"
"Fine," was not the answer they were looking for. They wanted to know about the Rebels and spring practice and Ed Orgeron and the staff and the quarterbacks and on and on about Rebel football.
Midway through spring training, in my opinon only, here are my thumbs up and thumbs down thoughts.
Quarterback: One of the best things the coaches have done this spring is to make them live in contact work. I thought that was what was missing last spring when Micheal Spurlock was prepping to take over for Eli Manning. He had not been hit in over three years. Football is hitting. I never thought it was a matter of courage with Spurlock, but I did think it was a matter of familiarity - knowing what it's like to get hit and still being able to play when live bullets are being fired your way. From my cheap seat, Spurlock has been the best QB in spring drills to this point and he's done it under live fire. Robert Lane is also having an adequate spring, but he still needs improvement in the passing game. Ethan Flatt has his moments of doing good things, but not enough to pass Spurlock and Lane at this point. Part of the improvement of the whole group can be credited to OC Noel Mazzone and his system. One, the QB does not make the line calls in his system, the center does, which takes that mental burden off the signal caller. Two, his system is simpler to learn and the read progressions are not as complex, I have been told. That's helping all the QBs. . . Thumbs up, but not straight up.
Offensive Line: I'm excited about the zone blocking scheme being used now because the players are excited about it. I don't know the intricate differences in the blocking schemes from the past and the ones used now, but I know our running game is something the offensive staff is pleased with. I'm going to write this delicately because I don't mean to slap our current kids in the face, but I thought the OL might be a weak link this year in trying to replace Chris Spencer, Doug Buckles and Marcus Johnson with who we have available, but to this point, they are not a weakness. Is it the system? Is it that the players now filling those slots - C Ben Boyce, LG Darryl Harris and RG Tony Bonds - are better than we anticipated? Is it because of the emergence of TB Jamal Pittman making them look good? I don't know those answers. All I know is that the OL is producing and that's good enough for me. I'd give them a straight thumbs up but I'm still concerned with depth. More of the backups need to emerge for that "grade.". . . Thumbs up, slightly.
Tight End: A breakout year by Lawrence Lilly was expected. It has not surfaced or materialized yet, but I know it's lurking in there somewhere and will pop out any day. Jimmy Brooks is a good blocker and has gotten more reliable catching the ball, but he's not dominant in either phase of the position. Robert Hough can stretch the field int eh passing game, but he's not going to overpower many DEs or LBs in the SEC. They all need work. Beyond them, I don't see an adequate TE in sight at this stage of the game. This might be a thumbs down if not for the fact that they are producing in scrimmages enough that you really can't say "that's a weakness.". . . Thumbs sideways.
Wide Receiver: I know the talent is there, but the consistency goes up and down, similar to last year. Rarely a scrimmage goes by when one of them doesn't have a head-shaking drop. Mario Hill, Taye Biddle and Mike Espy are too talented and too experienced to lose concentration like that, but it has happened. I am pleased with the progress of Matt Pierce - who is a reliable target over the middle and is tough, and Carlos Suggs - who seems to improve daily. Newcomer Burnell Wallace is also starting to show up more. Get more consistent and this is a big time thumbs up. As it is. . . . Thumbs sideways.
Tailback: Pittman has been the surprise of the spring for me. Jamal finally seems focused and motivated to be the best he can be, and that could be scary for opposing defenses. He's lost 13 pounds since last spring, has regained all his movement and hasn't lost any power. He can be as good as he wants to be and he appears to finally want it. Vashon Pearson is reliable and has improved. Remember, he gained over 800 yards last year, so he's no after-thought back. Alan Abrams started spring slowly, but has been making some nifty, Abrams-like moves of late. Good to see. Sitting on the shelf for a year is one BenJarvus Green-Ellis. His 1,800 yards rushing in the Big Ten the past two years was no fluke. When he becomes eligible in 2006, he will be a very good player for the Rebs. . . Thumbs straight up.
Fullback: RS frosh Jason Cook is getting kudos from RB Coach Frank Wilson, but he's not at the level of the two who graduated - Rick Razzano and Lorenzo Townsend. Heck, he's not supposed to be. Jason has the character and ability to get to that level before August, however. Anthony Hobgood is out right now with his umpteenth concussion, but he was having a good spring before that. Seth Michaelson is also a candidate who is a try-hard kid who has been visible and productive among the backups. Because of lack of experience. . . Thumbs sideways, maybe slightly down.
Utility Back: Larry Kendrick has been lining up at tailback, WR, in the slot and offset fullback. He's producing from all those positions. He's proving his worth and the coaches are taking notice. . . Thumbs up to Larry and to the coaches for recognizing his value.
Defensive Tackle: Michael Bozeman is unblockable at times. Dedrick Clark has gotten better. He will be valuable next year, but it is imperative for McKinley Boykin to return healthy and in top form in August. Jeremy Garrett is gaining more and more respect every day. Brandon Jenkins is learning a new position. Some days he's very good, some days he disappears, which is to be expected right now while he is getting his DT feet wet. The anticipated arrival of Peria Jerry is also important. As it stands right now in spring. . . Thumbs sideways.
Defensive End: Jayme Mitchell is as solid as the oak in your front yard. Not spectacular, but very good. Chris Bowers has been the surprise for me on the defensive side of the ball and has elevated his game to a high standard. Corvelli Haynes knows the ropes of SEC ball after having played enough snaps last year. Viciente DeLoach has improved, but not enough to turn heads. . . Thumbs sideways, due to lack of depth and Bowers needing more bulk to handle the teams that will test him by running right at him.
Linebackers: The starters - Patrick Willis, Kelvin Robinson and Garry Pack - are having outstanding springs. They are fast, physical and active. They are also smart and have caught on quickly to Ed Orgeron's defense. So what's the problem? The backups. Marquis McBeath has taken a step forward, as has Dontae Reed, but they need lots of reps between now and the first kickoff to keep me from holding my breath about the health of the starters. (Jamarca Sanford and Keith Houston, recently moved to LB from safety, could held this situation immensely. We'll see.) . . . Thumbs way up on the starters, thumbs down on the group of backups right now.
Secondary: Early on, I was pretty worried. I wasn't seeing much playmaking going on back there. The last two practices, however, have given me the indication that the light has come on. FS Charles Clark is heady and active, B. Brown has taken over strong safety and is becoming more of a playmaker, and the corners - Travis Johnson and Trumaine McBride - are having very good springs. The backup candidates are plentiful and also producing - Kareem Moore, Terrell Jackson, Nate Banks, Edwin Gelin, Dustin Mouzon, to name a few - and the recent addition of Mico McSwain could further bolster the last line of defense. . . Thumbs almost straight up.
Placekicker: Before getting into the actual act of kicking, the snap/hold operation between veteran Deep Snapper Sidney McLaurin and Holder Matt Hinkle has been nearly flawless. That's half the battle. Will Moseley, a strong-legged youngster who redshirted last year, has been surprisingly consistent - nearly perfect - in field goal work. Hunter Bray has struggled a little because he's also trying to punt - because we don't have a punter - but he's proven he's capable as well. . . Surprising thumbs up.
Punter: Yikes. Bray has had a couple of good days, but his plan of trying to do all the kicking may have been too ambitious. We'll see. At this point. . . Thumbs down.
Overall Energy/Attitude: I was concerned early on how the players were going to accept the new style of practice. In two words, it's harder. In four words, it's a lot harder. But I haven't heard any bellyaching, to speak of, and I see kids getting better due to the extra effort they are giving and is demanded of them. . . Big thumbs up.
Bottom Line: One thing that has caught me a little off guard is how quickly the players are adapting to the new systems on both sides of the ball. At times, they look like a machine. Sure, there are moments of chaos, but not nearly as many as I was expecting. I still have concerns about a few areas - the middle of the OL, OL depth, LB depth, more consistency from QB, TE emergence and overall DT capability - but I'd be hard-pressed to give the team anything but . . . a thumbs up.
Good job, thus far.
Beyond the practice reports. . .
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