Let's face it.
Any analysis of the Rebel defense without discussion of two stalwarts - one an All-American - who are missing spring training is sort of fruitless.
Senior MLB Patrick Willis is rehabbing from offseason foot surgery. He's the heart and soul of the Ole Miss stoppers.
Sophomore SS Jamarca Sanford, who is missing the important spring session after offseason groin surgery, will also be an impact factor for the Reb defesne in '06.
But this piece is what it is - a spring observation, and those two aren't practicing.
So taking into account two of the Rebs' better players are out of the loop for now, here are our thoughts on the linebackers and secondary.
At LB, Willis is the undeniable star, but in his absence there is an opportunity for his supporting cast to improve via more reps and more accountability to make plays sans P-Willie.
Junior Garry Pack was one of the most improved players on the squad last year and returns stronger and more experienced than a year ago. His play has reflected that in spring, to this point. New LB Coach David Saunders expressed satisfaction in Garry's progress, stating he seems more comfortable in the system this year than the film cutups from last year portrayed. LeRon King may be the fastest linebacker on campus and is Pack's backup. His charge is to continue to grow and get stronger to be able to handle Sam (Strong) LB effectively, but the energized sophomore has shown a knack for being around the ball and he's as physical as any 205-pounder can be - he likes to hit. When LeRon does an occasional stint at DE for his passing rushing ability, journeyman Brandon Thomas is in the mix. If BT can improve his movement a tad, he can contribute.
In the middle, sophomore Robert Russell is getting all the reps he needs, in Patrick's absence, to improve and become more familiar with the defense. After being thrown in the fire last year when Patrick was hurt, Robert proved his physical capabilities, but his recognition and familiarity with the defense cost him dearly in terms of productivity. Hopefully that will be solved with all the reps he's getting in spring. Willis needs a realiable backup and Russell is showing he can be counted on for that. Rogers Loche has improved his speed and quickness and that's what he needed to have a chance. He's made himself viable with movement improvement.
On the weak side, Quentin Taylor takes over for graduated Kelvin Robinson. So far, so good. Like Russell, Quentin just needs to get more familiar with the defensive calls so he can react instead of think so much. He's already shown glimpses of getting that accomplished, according to Saunders. Physically, there are no problems with Quentin. Converted TB Antonio Turner has the look of a LB, but through the first five practices of spring it is apparent he's green at the position. Even at that, he instinctively made plays in last week's scrimmage and shows a good future there. Reps and more reps are his key to being able to contribute.
The Rebel starting secondary loses only one player - CB Travis Johnson. That's good news, but even better news is that Nate Banks, who takes over for Travis, was considered Johnson's equal last year and has a lot of experience. This should be Nate's breakout year. He's one of the fastest players on the team and is starting to conquer the techniques DB Coach Chris Rippon is teaching. Sophomore Terrell Jackson is now playing under more control, which was his goal, and is showing signs of improvement. He's always been physical and aggressive, but now he is starting to harness those qualities into being a more methodical performer who plays within himself and within the guidelines of the defensive system.
At the other corner, Trumaine McBride is a year older and wiser due to starting all year last season. His one drawback a year ago was not being as physical as he would like in press coverage. In the offseason, T-Mac added about 6-8 pounds of muscle and is proving to be more effective in checking wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. His physical appearance has changed as much as anyone on the team in the last 12 months. Coach Ed Orgeron considers sophomore Dustin Mouzon a "third starter." He will take over the role Banks had last year and all involved are pleased with his progress. He's gotten stronger - which he needed, and that will help his game conisderably.
B. Brown has taken over for Sanford at strong safety and there is no drop off. B. has had a terrific offseason and it's showing in his play on the field. His confidence level is very high and he's become a leader on the defense. While he may not be a starter next season, his presence will be known and he will be an intergral part of the secondary as a nickel back, backup safety and backup cornerback. B. can probably play all four secondary positions effectively - how valuable is that? RS frosh Gary Albury is currently backing up Brown. He's made strides with his body in the offseason. He will have to continue on that path to be a major contributor, but will probably be a valuable asset in special teams play.
Tried-and-true senior Charles Clark returns for his third year as the starting free safety. Last year, Clark played somewhat tentatively, he says, and his goal this year is to be more aggressive and make more big plays that were available to be made last year. He says his knowledge of the defense will allow him to take more calculated gambles in 2006. RS freshman Gary Riggs looks the part of a big-time player. He is Clark's heir apparent and will be a valuable backup in 2006.
Overview: It would be ideal if some of the younger LBs and DBs would develop into reliable backups. That appears to be happening with Russell, Turner, Riggs, Jackson, Albury and Loche. The starters - with Willis and Sanford in the lineup - will be a quality group capable of doing big things in 2006. Willis could very easily be the best LB in the country and that's as important to a defense as having a great quarterback on offense.
Tomorrow: Part III of the series will be a peek at the offense, beginning with the offensive line.
Grid observations, Part II
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