The Rebel secondary - due in part to the lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks Ole Miss Coach Ed Orgeron has been dealing with and openly stating most of the season - has not produced the results hoped for from a veteran unit.
Hopefully, a better pass rush is on the horizon in the future, but from Secondary Coach Chris Rippon's perspective, there are also some young defensive backs that he has high hopes for as well.
More specifically, true freshman Cornerback Cassius Vaughn, who has played some this year and has blocked a couple of punts on special teams duties; true freshman Strong Safety Jamal Harvey, who has also played on special teams and sparingly in the secondary; true frosh Free Safety Allen Walker, who will most likely redshirt and is being groomed to take over for senior FS Charles Clark next season; and true freshman Markeith Summers, who was moved from wide receiver to the secondary early in the year and is also learning the coverage trade.
"We have four freshmen back there who we feel really good about. We feel they have very bright futures," said Rip.
Vaughn has made the most immediate splash to this point in his career. The 5-11, 180-pounder from Memphis, TN, has shown playmaking ability in his limited duties this year.
"Cassius is a very athletic youngster who is making the transition from high school football to the SEC," noted Rippon. "We have seen glimpses of the skills he has that affirm and reaffirm he's going to be a good player. There is also evidence the speed of the game has taken him by surprise at times and the techniques you have to have to play against some of the top wideouts in the country aren't developed enough right now to throw him out there in a sink-or-swim situation.
"What I really like about Cassius is that he has a short memory, which is really important to any secondary player on this level. He's been on the travel squad, he's played in games and he's developed into a very good special teams player for us. He's going to make some young mistakes. Instantly overcoming those mistakes is his next mission. A DB on this level has to put mistakes behind them immediately and get ready for a different play, different technique, different coverage and a differnt wideout, in some cases, on the next play. Cassius is learning how important a short memory is."
Rippon thinks Vaughn is close, real close, to being ready to go at one of the hardest positions on the field to play - corner.
"He has not perfected everything yet, but we are very pleased with his progress," Rip continued. "He has demonstrated he's not that far off from being able to play. There's no question he will be a good player.
"He's showing the skills of having the potential of not only being a good corner, but of being a real good, if not great, corner on this level. He has excellent speed, real good hips, he accelerates out of cuts, he has excellent hands - all those things are good, it's just a matter of mastering different techniques, which he's gaining on. Time is on his side."
Harvey is in the same boat as Vaughn, but at a different secondary position.
"Jamal has evolved into a good special teams player and has performed well in situations when he's been in the games at strong safety," Rippon stated. "He's a big, tough kid who likes to mix it up.
"Like Cassius, it's just a matter of him learning everything he needs to know to play the position in a team concept and understand his role. Physically, he's got all the attributes we are looking for in a strong safety."
Early in the year, hoping to find a candidate for the future who has the size to combat the taller wide receivers that are now in vogue in college football, the 6-3 Summers was moved to corner from wide receiver to see if he could handle that position.
"I think the transition is going well for Markeith. I'm playing him at every position in the secondary. Since we are redshirting him, I want to expose him to everything in the secondary this year and then hone in on a position for him in spring," Rip noted. "Markeith is a great kid and you can see his athletic ability. The hardest thing for him and all redshirts is motivating them to do well in practice because they don't see the light at the end of the tunnel in terms of getting into games.
"I like Markeith. I like his accountability. He has real good range and has made some nice plays in practice. Like the other two, his progress is encouraging and his future is bright. With all of them, a year in the system, a year in the weight room, a year learning the ropes and I feel you will see a world of difference in them next year because they are such fine, but raw, athletes."
Last, but certainly not least, is Walker, who came to Ole Miss as one of the most-highly rated recruits from 2006.
"Free safety is the most difficult position to learn in the secondary because of the mental demands. We are grooming him slowly so he can absorb everything he needs to know so he can be as mentally sharp as Charles Clark is," Rippon explained. "Allen is a terrific athlete and is coming along very nicely with his understanding of the scheme and the responsbilities of free safety, with are immense."
Rippon summed up the foursome of Walker, Summers, Harvey and Vaughn concisely.
"If you were playing sandlot football with 11 on 11 and didn't have a playbook, they would be phenomenal players in that environment. They would be dominating," he concluded. "In our periods where we put all the young guys out there for a developmental period in practice, they do dominate.
"But when you put in a scheme and the accountability they have within different calls, they aren't nearly as smooth yet and not as smooth as they have to be to succeed on this level. But I know this - it's coming and it's going to be exciting to see when it does."
Chris Rippon -
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