Editor's Note: The following is Part VII of our spring football series. Today, the linebackers and a talk with LB Coach David Saunders. Happy Easter!
New Linebackers Coach David Saunders had several goals heading into his first spring training as the LB mentor at Ole Miss, but the most pressing, in his mind, was to see more consistency and repetition of doing things correctly from his group.
"It goes without saying, consistency is a huge part of being an effective linebacker in the SEC or on any level," Saunders, who came back to Ole Miss after several years as the head coach at Millsaps when 2005 LB Coach Shawn Slocum went to the NFL, said. "I was looking for consistency on a lot of different levels and in a lot of different areas."
Did he get what he was looking for in spring training? Not really, but he likes the direction the LBs are going in.
"We identified that we wanted to improve versus the run, establish a more aggressive tempo versus the run and to be consistent with that mindset and action," Saunders said. "We aren't there yet, but I've seen flashes of what we're looking for.
"In pass defense, we wanted to make sure our linebackers are getting to their drop dividers, they are developing skills in playing quarterback intentions and are breaking properly from their zone drops to make plays on passes. Again, we've seen flashes, but we are looking for more consistency."
Saunders was missing one of the best linebackers in the nation during spring training. One Patrick Willis. He didn't bemoan that – he embraced it.
"Certainly, we would have preferred to have had Patrick out there with us, but it's more important for him to be healthy in the fall than to go through spring training," David explained. "With him out, it did afford us the opportunity this spring to get Robert Russell and Rogers Loche more reps at Mike LB, which they both needed. It helped them quite a bit in their development."
The following is a breakdown of Saunders' current depth chart and a few coments about each linebacker:
Sam Linebacker – Garry Pack – Junior, 6-1, 225 – "Garry steadily improved during spring. Since he played a lot last year in this scheme, we were able to hone down what we wanted him to accomplish in spring and that was to zero in on the responsibilities of the Sam LB in this scheme and to really dig in on what he is supposed to do in every conceivable situation," David stressed. "I believe Garry has an opportunity to be as good, or better, than any SLB in the SEC if he will get his PhD in the ins and outs of this scheme."
Brandon Thomas – Sophomore, 5-11, 240 – "Brandon got a lot of reps and his play and knowledge of the system improved quite a bit," Saunders assessed. "What he needs to do in the offseason is to work on his movement and pick up some speed. He's a possible contributor on special teams."
Mike Linebacker – Robert Russell – Sophomore, 6-0, 235 – "Robert had an advantage over Rogers in that he has been on the field in the SEC in pressure situations, so he knows what it takes to succeed," said David. "He understands that he has to become more consistent and to do that he will have to keep working through the summer and August. Robert is physical and tough and makes plays, but he's sporadic sometimes. Consistency and learning the position inside and out are his keys."
Rogers Loche – Redshirt freshman, 6-0, 235 – "Rogers got a lot of reps this spring and improved his play, but like all our guys that age he's got a lot of work to do. Bigger, stronger, faster has to be more than a catch phrase for him in the summer – it's got to be a reality," Saunders noted. "Rogers has a chance to compete in special teams situations next year."
Note – Patrick Willis was out during spring, as you are well aware, but he will be back and healthy in August and will take his place as the starting MLB and as one of the elite linebackers in the nation.
Will Linebacker – Quentin Taylor – Sophomore, 6-0, 240 – "Quentin has shown the athletic ability necessary to be a good SEC Will LB," Saunders stated. "He's had playing time in the SEC, so like Robert Russell he knows what it takes. We just need him to dig in deep to the WLB position and sharpen his edges on assignments and scheme."
Antonio Turner – Sophomore, 6-1, 230 – "Antonio just has to keep plugging in his adjustment from tailback to linebacker. He's shown he can play fast and he's a physical player," Saunders closed. "He likes to mix it up, but he just needs a lot of reps and to learn to make an impact or contribution in games. We like his future there, though."
Our Take: How can Ole Miss – or any team – take Patrick Willis out of the lineup and not feel it? With all due respect to Russell and the younger linebackers, who we feel have good potential for the future, P-Willie is the straw that stirs the drink, not only at linebacker but for the whole defense. Pack has star potential and was one of the most improved players on the team last year. Couple him with a healthy Willis and get Taylor more familiar with his duties and the starting linebacking corps could be pure nitro. We have to feel good about this unit.
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