Excitement rules in grid program

If you aren't excited about the direction the football team took in spring training, you aren't paying close attention. . . But spring training was not a cure-all for the 2005 Rebels and there are obvious areas of concern that have to be addressed between now and September.

Just about every Rebel football fan I know is euphoric about what is going on in the Ole Miss grid program. You can count me in that number. I think our enthusiasm is justified.

Even after removing my Red & Blue glasses – which I don't do very often, I can see tons of things to get excited about. The following are just a few.

One, "new" Coach Ed Orgeron and his staff have run spring practices with a style and consistency I have never seen before. Through my quarter century of going to Rebel practices, I have seen practices as organized, practices as intense, practices as fast-paced, practices with the same ultimate tempo before, but they have been spotty. I have never seen all of those qualities rolled into one tidy, constant package every single day and seen players responding the way our current players are.

When they hit the field for practice, they better be ready to roll. They better be ready to expend every ounce of energy they have, mentally and physically. They better be prepared to handle some controlled chaos and they better be ready for something non-stop. Nobody is walking. Even when getting a drink of water, they better jog to the coolers. These workouts aren't for the weak or meek.

Because of that demeanor, you can see daily improvement from a lot of players. Orgeron and his staff do not take kindly to things being done half-hearted. Do that and you will do it over until you get it right.

The first week of spring practice, I saw most of the players "buying in." There were a few shaking their heads and wondering what hit them, but even they gave a good effort. By the second week, every player had accepted the way things were going to be. By the third week, they started realizing improvement and gained the type of energy level - including the enthusiasm - Coach O is asking for and demanding. By the end of spring, the style of practice seemed second nature to them. That's a positive sign.

Two, players on both sides of the ball absolutely love two things that went on in spring – the equal opportunity for all and the aggressive systems being introduced. Orgeron said before spring practice began the depth chart was "etched in sand." It wasn't lip service. The number one units have changed daily with a lot of different players being given the chance to show their stuff while surrounded by the "best" on the team. The coaches' depth chart has changed daily, without fail. Have a good day and you move up or retain your top spot. Have a poor day and you are going down. The good, and fair, thing is neither a promotion nor demotion are permanent, by any means.

The musical chairs look to the depth chart kept players on their toes and kept them giving their all to try and prove themselves each and every day. They quickly learned that a good day would be rewarded and a bad day would be "punished." The competition level was as high as I have ever seen it every day because of the mindset of the coaches that everyone started with a clean slate.

In regards to the systems, they both attack, which kids love. It's like watching great fast break basketball, or a hit and run in baseball, or rushing the net in tennis, or Phil Mickelson in golf. There is nothing defensive about the defense and nothing timid about the offense. They are designed to produce big plays, within the confines of common sense and sound football principles. Again, controlled mayhem comes to mind in trying to describe our new style. On offense, it's ball-control mixed with an always-lurking quick-strike mentality. On defense, it's get the ball back by any means necessary.

To carry it a step further, there is also this "little matter" of speed. Some Rebs complained last year about our team appearing, and playing, "slow" when we had speedier players on the bench. That will not be a cause for concern this year, but while speed is the coupon that will help get you on the field, you won't get the full refund if you aren't a sound football player as well.

Through spring training, the foundation for a solid football team has been poured in terms of style, attitude, what is expected, commitment, energy and other intangibles, but. . . . there always has to be a "but," doesn't there?

I'd be remiss if I didn't state some personal observations – with the benefit of some hints and reading between the lines of coaches' comments – about these Rebels.

We've got holes in this team, folks. I know it's hard for any of us to temper our enthusiasm with the energy flowing through this program. We want this thing to explode so badly we can taste it, smell it and feel it, but we can't ignore the obvious, that being no matter how much the coaches try, the players try and we wish, we have some talent gaps that don't stack up to the top of the ladder in the SEC at this writing.

Here's a short list of the things that need attention and improvement.

One, through 15 spring practices, I still don't know if we have identified five – much less eight or nine – offensive linemen who can win in the SEC against SEC defensive lines and linebackers.

Yes, the zone scheme they are running will help. Yes, there is some anticipated help on the way. Yes, there is time for two or three more to develop, but coming out of spring I would say this OL is not up to the standards we are used to at this time of the year.

Two, even though I love what OC Noel Mazzone is doing with our quarterbacks, and even though I have seen some excellent results in spring, I think there is a lot to be done and a lot left to be decided with the candidates under center. I feel much better coming out of spring than I did going in, but I don't believe we are, as coaches tend to say, where we want to be yet.

Fans are constantly debating this situation. Can Micheal Spurlock overcome the cobwebs of last year's disappointments? Does this offense fit him better? Is Robert Lane going to improve his passing to give his game more balance? Is Ethan Flatt the right fit for this scheme? Can OC/QB Coach Moel Mazzone transform this position into one we are not holding our breath about on every snap? While I liked what I saw in spring, the jury is still out, in my mind.

Three, too many times this spring I have seen dropped passes that killed drives. I know our wide receivers are capable. At times, they have been excellent, but they have to develop more consistency in their primary job – catching the ball. In the Red-Blue Game, I thought they did a much better job of that - maybe they need a crowd to help their concentration, but in practice they were too sporadic. And practice habits usually translate into the same type of game results.

Four, we have three tight ends. Period. That's not enough, no matter their talent level. One injury and a portion of the offense has to be put on the scrap pile. Two injuries and a lot of the offense has to be reconfigured. We need one or two more TEs, in a hurry. Where are they? I have no clue.

Again, I'm "in love" with what the coaches are trying to do on offense. For instance, getting the ball in Larry Kendrick's hands from different angles and positions, being sensibly aggressive, using the tight ends more, the zone blocking scheme, using the width of the field more than we are accustomed to in the running game, are all strategies that make me smile. But personnel-wise, there is work to be done between now and September.

On defense, I'm a bit more excited about the available personnel.

Yes, we need DT McKinley Boykin to come back strong after missing spring drills. Yes, we need continued improvement from DT/DE Brandon Jenkins and two or three more. Yes, we need a couple of linebackers to step up their game. But I doubt there are many teams in the nation who don't have a laundry list similar to this one.

From a system standpoint, I have the same thoughts on defense that I do in watching our offense – I'm ecstatic.

Specialists? Everything seems very good except one pretty important facet of the game – punting. No offense to anyone involved, but we are struggling there. We've got two placekickers who are now trying to punt. It hasn't worked very well in spring, to be honest, but the emphasis on punting by the coaches has not been full-bore in spring. That will have to be a priority in August, and it will be.

My intent with this piece is not to stymie your enthusiasm. Heck, I'm as excited as I've ever been. I don't want you reading this column and thinking, "bummer." But I do want you to understand where we really are in the football program and to give this team, and this staff, a fighting chance and your full support.

If the Rebs get off to a good start in 2005, they can win a lot of games and we will all be happy, but you need to know there is work to be done for those things to happen.

Overall, our excitement is warranted. It's great to get that feeling again. Just don't let it overpower our common sense.

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