There aren't many - if any - college football teams that went into August camp boasting of being a finished product with no worries as the season rapidly approaches.
The Ole Miss Rebels are certainly no exception, but what matters is the progress made to correct those "deficiencies."
The following is a somewhat educated opinion of the advances the Rebels have made to fix theirs. "Opinion" is certainly the operative word here.
This area has not, to this point, been shored up as much as hoped. Due to injuries to starting Center Darryl Harris, who may or may not be back in the lineup for the opener, and Left Guard David Traxler, who was starting to come on strong prior to missing a week or so of practice, the depth and efficiency of the OL has been thin and sporadic, respectively. We all assumed, prematurely, that converted DT Andrew Wicker and true frosh Michael Oher would take over the guard slots pretty quickly, but that has turned out to be wishful thinking and a bit unrealistic. They will, in short order, become stronger factors, but we have to give them a fair chance, particularly the rookie, whose upside is as good as any freshman OL we've seen here in many years. Can journeyman RG Thomas Eckers hold up in a starting role? Can Ben Boyce and Tony Bonds take us where we need to be snapping the ball? Without Harris and Traxler, does OL Coach George DeLeone have enough depth to get through the heat of some of the early games and the inevitability of more injuries? Those are big questions that will have to be answered and remedied in a relative hurry. The OL, as a unit, has done well against the Reb's base defense, which is encouraging, but they have struggled some in blitz drills. There is time to correct all that, but part of the "correction" will be in terms of available personnel. To this point, the offensive line is better than I anticipated it would be, but it has to continue to improve daily to be successful on a high level.
Surprisingly, I have been calmer about the QB situation this August than I thought I'd be. Sure, senior Micheal Spurlock, who looks like he will end up as the starter, doesn't have a good track record in games, but the more I watch him in a new offense, which is designed to fit his skills rather than him being put into a rigid system, and the more I see him gaining confidence and producing in pressure situations, the more faith I have. There is no question about his athletic skills. All he needs is early success and to gain game confidence and he will be fine. I have also gained confidence in Robert Lane and Ethan Flatt, who have not been as consistent as Spurlock, but have shown they can move the team. The good news is that whoever is under center will not be asked to carry the weight of the team on their shoulders. OC Noel Mazzone will ease his quarterback into more and more responsibility and will not give him more than he can handle early on. The recipe for disaster that we saw last year, with the coaches thinking Spurlock could just pick up where Eli Manning left off, is gone. On the other hand, Spurlock, Lane and Flatt will only be as good as the offensive line allows them to be. See above.
I haven't been disappointed with the running backs or the running game as a whole, but there are two things that stick in my mind a little that make me leary. One, we don't have a breakaway back unless freshly-moved Mico McSwain can bring that dimension to the table. Two, nobody has just grabbed that position by the throat and said "it's mine, you other boys stand over there and watch." I think we are looking at a running back by committee approach again. I have no real problems with that, but it would be nice to have a 25-carry-a-game runner back there. Maybe that will develop, but it hasn't yet. On the bright side of the coin, however, Head Coach Ed Orgeron has repeatedly said after practices that he's been pretty pleased with the running game results and progress. Good enough for me. The area I am very happy with is Fullback Jason Cook. He has turned out to be my surprise player on offense, maybe by far. Tough, excellent receiver, smart and more gifted athletically than I first thought. He's had some runs after receptions that have been eye-popping and bruising.
The emergence and rise up the depth chart of sophomore Robert Hough has helped that position become far more productive and reliable. We know that Jimmy Brooks and Lawrence Lilly have been productive in the past and will be in the future. To have Hough step past them is a good sign. I know some fans hate the term "solid" when describing a position, but this one is, well, solid.
I complained and complained some more last fall and last spring about dropped passes, as in too many of them. That has not been the case, for the most part, during August camp. There were days when the receivers were exhausted, their concetration levels dipped and pass were muffed, but for the majority of the time the WRs have been reliable. Senior Mike Espy has had a killer camp, the best of the group. Seniors Mario Hill and Taye Biddle, once he returned after having to finish some academic work, have been good as well. Senior Larry Kendrick started strong, but has been nicked up of late. It will be important for him to get healthy. Carlos Suggs is greatly improved. Matt Pierce was doing well until he was hurt, but he's expected back soon. JUCO transfer Milton Collins was making his mark until a shoulder problem - he will be out for a few weeks, probably and unfortunately. Frosh Burnell Wallace has very good speed and has started, lately, being a bigger factor in that unit. Not bad, not bad at all.
This has been a hard area to keep up with. Not really, but there has been a lot of movement and the depth chart, other than senior DTs McKinley Boykin and Michael Bozeman, has changed a lot. I still don't believe the defensive end slots are completely settled yet and Brandon Jenkins has been moved back to DT after a week or so at DE. The need for edge speed has dictated the coaches' decisions. Newcomers like Lamark Armour and undersized LeRon King are looking like youngsters who may get playing time early due to their speed off the corner. If I were a betting man, I would say the DL starters will be DE Jayme Mitchell, the senior DTs Boykin and Bozeman, and LEO is still being contested between senior Corvelli Haynes and RS frosh Chris Bowers. But these players figure in the rotation as well - frosh DT Peria Jerry, DT Jeremy Garrett, DT Jenkins, DT Dedrick Clark, DE Viciente DeLoach and King and Armour. Snap distribution is an unknown, but the available candidates have been pleasing.
Going into August, I felt this position needed some depth, but would be an overall strength. The depth situation is getting better with freshmen Quentin Taylor and Robert Russell surfacing. I still believe this is a strength area and the emergence of sophomore Garry Pack - who gets better by the snap - as a starter at OLB strengthens that belief. Patrick Willis, Kelvin Robinson and Pack, with Taylor, Russell and Dontae Reed in the mix quite a bit, sounds good to me. Keith Houston has also shown signs of being good enough to contribute effectively.
We needed a third cornerback. Done. Enter Nate Banks, who is actually pushing Travis Johnson to start. We needed SS Jamarca Sanford to hone his coverage skills. Done. We needed FS Charles Clark to have a good August. Done. We need quality depth. Done and done with B. Brown, Terrell Jackson, frosh Gary Riggs, Kareem Moore, et al. I'm a firm believer in experienc being a key element in the secondary. Three of the four starters have plenty. Done. I'm also a believer in the secondary only being as good as the pass rush. Coach O will generate that, one way or the other. Done.
With the graduation of Jonathan Nichols and Cody Ridgeway, and not a lot to shout about in the kicking department last spring, there were worries going into August. The placekicking - with Matt Hinkle and Will Moseley leading the way - has been country fair, sometimes real good. Moseley is booming kickoffs out of the end zone, too. Deep Snapper Sidney McLaurin has been excellent, as usual. Holder Rob Park has been a major surprise since he has never held before in his football career. The return people - Espy, B. Brown, Kendrick, Biddle, et al - have been more explosive and dynamic in Special Teams Coordinator Chris Rippon's schemes. The coverage and protection personnels have been more than adequate. All that sounds good, right? Well, it is, but the thorn in the side of the special teams has been punting. Moseley and Park are doing most of it right now and neither have been very consistent. Part of that is unfamiliarity via Moseley not really being a punter and Park getting adjusted to college football. Part of it has been tired legs - they are asked to do more than kicking in practice. Once they can get their legs back under them, I look for that area to improve. Or at least it better. Overall, special teams have been pretty productive.
I'm satisfied with the progress that has been made. The conditioning is excellent. The coaches have adjusted well and are trying out every option available. The players are responding. There is more time left to continue piecing all the puzzle together. If a few key players get healthy, and a few more continue progressing, the worries will lessen. Those are pretty big "ifs," but they are doable because our coaches and players are willing to try whatever it takes to get better. At this point, I couldn't ask for much more than what is taking place.
Grid progress report
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