Nine months ago, Ed Orgeron was hired as the new Ole Miss football coach after being a vital part of back-to-back national championships at Southern Cal.
Since that time, he and his staff have worked diligently toward two goals - tomorrow afternoon's 2005 season opener against Memphis in Liberty Bowl Stadium and recruiting Rebels of the future.
Time-wise, it's been like a full-term human pregnancy with the due date being on Labor Day. Ironic, huh?
What will we see when the Rebels take the field? What will be the outcome? Will we be happy with the results and looking forward to Orgeron's brand of football for the weeks, and years, to come?
First things first. I will get ridiculed for this next paragraph, but I really don't care. It's just worked out this way and there's been little I could do about it this time around.
I don't know a lot about Memphis, even though I believe it is a small part of my job to be a little knowledgeable about our opponents. This year, it's been hard enough keeping up with the comings and goings and progress and depth chart involved in Coach O's program, much less know any inside scoop on the Tigers. Sure, I know TB DeAngelo Williams is one of the best in the college business, they have a new OL and QB, Joe Lee Dunn will be the skipper of a defense that returns - depending on who you listen to - anywhere from seven to 10 starters, and Coach Tommy West has stuck it to us the last two years. Beyond that, the intricacies of the Memphis team escape me.
But I will say this - if we don't beat Memphis, we have problems I am not aware of or am too biased to see. I mean no disrespect to them and the job West has done, but I just don't see it. Just as I have been in the past two years with losses to them, I will be shocked beyond description, but I don't think it is going to happen. No way, no how.
With that little caveat behind me, let's talk a little about something I am more tuned in with - the Rebels.
The Staff: Nobody in the country has outworked them. That is an absolute. Another absolute - I think - is that no new staff in the country has been as open-minded and given every player on the team - young and old - a cleaner slate to prove himself.
If you were out there during August practice, you had a chance to earn playing time, including six walk-ons who earned scholarships by showing they do belong. That has promoted an atmosphere of competition and of players trying harder. "Etched in sand" was more than a catch-phrase and the players responded to it.
The coaches have instituted tried-and-true, modern, simple and flexible systems designed around their personnel and utilizing the strengths of every player they think can help the cause. They have instilled a sense of urgency, a tempo and an intensity the likes of which I have not seen here in the 24 years I've been bringing you Ole Miss athletic news.
I'd be remiss - a garden variety liar actually - if I said bringing all of that to the table went without rough spots. There has been some with coaching turnover and players leaving, but the ones who remain and have embraced the "I'm In" slogan the team sports are better coaches and football players for it.
It's been hard. It's been tough. It's been bordering on unbearable at times. It was supposed to be. It was done that way by design. Coach O's design. He saw that philosophy work at Miami under Jimmy Johnson and again at USC under Pete Carroll. The results were four national championship rings. The folks who win big pay a big price. Our players have paid a price and it will pay back dividends at some point in time.
The only remaining question - which will be answered somewhat tomorrow - is this staff's expertise on game day. I'm predicting an excellent showing of team management. Orgeron - although not in a head coaching capacity - has been there and done that and he's prepared himself for this day for many years. OC Noel Mazzone, OL Coach George DeLeone, WR Coach Matt Lubick, TE Coach Matt Luke, LB Coach Shawn Slocum and Secondary Coach Chris Rippon have all successfully faced this before in athletic environments as big or bigger than the Liberty Bowl. I do not believe, for one second, they will be "surprised" by anything they will see.
The Players: Here's where it gets a little trickier and the questions increase in number and scope.
On offense, unfortunately, the middle of the offensive line does not have a single start among them and they will be protecting a set of QBs who - frankly - struggled behind a really good line a year ago. I feel very good about the progress all of these individuals have made since the first spring practice until now. I feel good about the way they have been "handled" by the coaching staff. I feel good that they will respond favorably tomorrow. But I don't know it as a certainty. I expect it, but I can't predict it with 100% accuracy. Experience, they say, is the best teacher and some experience will be gained tomorrow against a defensive coordinator who is known for being "peculiar" with his sets.
On the plus side, OL Coach DeLeone has installed a player-friendly system up front that doesn't require total dominance to achieve succcess and QB Coach Noel Mazzone is not going to put the weight of the game on the shoulders of the signal-callers.
On defense, things are a bit better with seven or eight -depending on if you count LEO Corvelli Haynes as one - returning starters put into a system more conducive (and simpler) to their talents. Orgeron is utilizing their speed more and I think speed is something we have plenty of, particularly in our front seven. I will be surprised if we don't force QBs to throw quicker than they want to and surprised if we don't plug up running lanes a lot faster.
Special teams have improved since spring immensely, with the only major question mark being the punting game, and even it has gotten better in the last week or so of August camp. No, we don't have Jonathan Nichols, but in all the charting of the field goals I've done in August, our percentages of converted PATs/FGs have been pretty darn good. I think Mike Espy is a more explosive return guy than in the past, Will Moseley has a stronger leg for kickoffs, and our coverage and return units will be faster and more aggressive philosophically. Just by having the mindset of forcing the action, I think we will see improvement in special teams play.
There always, it seems, has to be a "but" in there somewhere though. Our "but" right now revolves around confidence and belief. Yes, I know this is a new beginning with a new staff and last year is not supposed to count for much, but - there it is - most of these players are the same players who were 4-7 last year and lost to Memphis basically one year ago tomorrow. Can they put that behind them? Has Orgeron's will and influence been strong enough for them to let the past go? Yes to both, but they still have to go out there and perform.
Right here, right now, I'm predicting a win for the Rebels. Deep down, I know this won't be an easy game, but a convincing win wouldn't surprise me either.
From what I have seen during the first nine months of Ed Orgeron's tenure - from him, from his staff and from our players - I'm expecting nothing less than to be 1-0 by tomorrow night.
After all, I'm In.
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