LB - Thinking less; reacting more

After having everything but the kitchen sink thrown at them, the Ole Miss linebackers started responding favorably more and more as spring training progressed. LB Coach Shawn Slocum believes the foundation has been poured for the Rebel linebackers in spring training.

When a new system is being installed, there is a natural period when players are thinking more and reacting less.

Linebackers Coach Shawn Slocum believes those days are in the past.

"We had a steep learning curve this spring for the linebackers – for everyone really, but we are way ahead in our installation than we thought we'd be," Slocum began. "My guys have demonstrated high effort and a strong work ethic. For their body types, they have played very physical football. Overall, we're not a big linebacking unit, but we play downhill and will hit you in the mouth.

"In the past week or so, I have seen our production big up a great deal because we are reacting now and not having to think as much. The process has been fun to watch. Our system is geared toward speed and the athleticism to make plays. I think our guys – as a whole – fit that criteria."

At Will Linebacker, senior Kelvin Robinson, who switched from a career at strong safety to LB this spring, is the big gun. Kelvin was recently named the Chucky Mullins Courage Award winner and will wear the number 38 jersey that signifies that honor in the 2005 season.

"Overall, Kelvin has had a real good spring considering the transition he made. Linebacker is different – you are in the fray all the time and are constantly taking on 300-pounders trying to take you out of the play," Slocum explained. "You have to react quickly. We have seen enough good things from Kelvin to excite us about next fall. It's just a matter of time with him before he's a complete linebacker. He has responded well. He just needs to stay the course and continue working on the physical nature of the position. Technically, he's catching on quickly."

RS freshman Brandon Thomas and sophomore squad member Kevin Jordan are backing up Kelvin and have been splitting time lately.

"They are a pair of young guys learning the position. It's a matter of being inexperienced with them. They have both made some plays this spring and they both try very hard, but they have work to do in the different phases of playing linebacker on this level," said Slocum. "Obviously, the offseason – with the weight and speed training – will be important to them."

At Mike (Middle) LB, junior Patrick Willis is having a very good spring, despite the adjustment from a two-linebacker to three-linebacker system.

"Patrick has very good linebacking ability. He's fast and physical. He's got a great burst – when he sets his sites on something, he goes and gets it. He is also a determined player who continues to pressure himself to not only be the best linebacker on this team but to be one of the best in the nation," Slocum assessed. "The thing with Patrick is that we expect a lot. We know he has the ability, now go play like it. Good players have to play well.

"He needs to understand in our scheme where we want his eyes so he can more easily diagnose plays. When he learns that, the game will slow down for him and he'll be playing faster on a more consistent basis."

Behind Willis is sophomore Marquis McBeath, who has shown flashes of "getting it" despite missing a little work with shoulder problems that have haunted him his whole career.

"Marquis has shown playmaking ability this spring," Shawn evaluated. "We need him to work on his consistency and get to the point where he is making the plays that are there to be made all the time. We know he's had shoulder problems in the past, but I think he'll be OK in the fall."

At Sam LB, there seems to be a two-horse race going on between sophomores Dontae Reed and Garry Pack. Pack started out spring drills running with the number one defense, but lately Reed has gotten the nod.

"Garry is an athletic youngster who doesn't have much experience and at times it shows," said Slocum. "Early on in spring, the load on him mentally slowed his progress, but now he's moving forward and starting to get his assignments and techniques down better. When he gets the system down mentally, he will begin to play faster and will be much more productive. The athleticism is there, we know that.

"Dontae has had a very good spring. He's flying around and giving high effort. He's catching on to the position and is showing the ability to make plays. He's been a pleasant surprise of spring at our position."

A newcomer to the position is next – junior Keith Houston, who was moved from safety to LB midway through spring.

"Keith has the size and speed we are looking for, but we don't know much about him at linebacker at this point. He suffered a concussion the first day he was moved from safety and we don't have a read on him yet," Slocum added. "We think Keith has potential there, however, or we would have never moved him from safety."

Normally, in a 4-3 system, there are around 12 LB candidates. As you can see, the Rebs will enter fall practice eight players who have gone through spring training. That is why linebacker was a priority in the last recruiting class. The hope is that "two or three" true freshman will be able to add immediate quality depth to the lineup.

"It's not an ideal position to be in, but we will be counting on some of the signees to make an impact quickly at the linebacker slots," Slocum closed. "We hope their transition to college football will be a quick one."

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