Football 2006, Part I

As we approach a new year, a last look at the football year seems appropriate. Today, we go over the eight months leading up to the 2006 season. Tomorrow, a recap of the campaign. The next day, in Part III, we glimpse the future. Read about it inside.

What can we say about 2006 Rebel football?

Highs, lows and everything in between.

The year got started with an excellent recruiting class by Rebel Football Coach Ed Orgeron and his tireless staff. They were ranked in the top 15 in the nation and had several "can't miss" type players sign the dotted line.

Who could forget the excitement of awaiting on Brent Schaeffer's decision and then, only a couple of hours later, getting another Rebel affirmative from Meridian RB Cordera Eason? Who can forget the drama of the battle with Florida over Allen Walker's commitment? Or the suspense of Marcus Tillman's decision? Or the excitement of pulling a top duo from California - LB Johnathan Cornell and record-setting QB Michael Herrick? Good times, needless to say. It had been a long time since Ole Miss fought for and won the services of such highly-rated players.

That class proved, on the field during the season, that Coach O and company are going to bring in a higher quality athlete and will do so in quantity. With four freshmen All-Americans – John Jerry, Josh Shene, Greg Hardy and Marcus Tillman – and several more signees who had a positive impact on the program, the signing class was a good start to '06.

Just before Signing Day, Orgeron also upgraded his staff, bringing on board Offensive Coordinator Dan Werner and Offensive Line Coach/Assistant Head Coach Art Kehoe from Miami after they were scapegoated there by Coach Larry Coker, now a goner himself. The Canes' problems were, obviously, not Werner and Kehoe's fault. Their impact on the Rebels could easily be seen during the fall season.

Also, Hugh Freeze was elevated to on-the-field status as the tight ends coach and David Saunders was hired to mentor the linebackers. Immediately, you could see the cohesiveness – missing in 2005 – on the staff develop. Saunders led a linebacking corps that had All-American and Butkus Award winner Patrick Willis and JUCO Rory Johnson, who came on like gangbusters after learning the ropes of the defense early in the season. Freeze quickly morphed into O's right hand man and recruiting coordinator. His input on the staff has been second to none in terms of creativity, especially on special teams and trick plays.

After a productive offseason under the guidance of Strength & Conditioning Coach Aaron Ausmus, the Rebs entered spring training with a lot of questions to answer. P-Willie did not participate due to a foot injury he had in 2005 and projected starting QB Brent Schaeffer was not on board to learn the offense, but everything else went as smoothly as could be expected.

It was during spring when you could see the influence of Werner and Kehoe. They were determined to institute an aggressive, attacking and physical presence on the OL and in the running game. Slowly but surely, coupled with the addition of power runner BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who had sat out the 2005 season due to transfer rules, you could see the presence, the start, of an effective run game.

When spring ended the consensus opinion of the team was that the OL - led by senior Andrew Wicker - would be better than originally anticipated, the running game had a real chance to be successful, the wide receivers had a long way to go, Schaeffer had to come on board in the summer to learn the offense and get acclimated to the receiving corps, the tight end position would be fine, the defensive line needed more bodies, the linebackers would be a strength and the secondary was experienced and should be good.

The placekicking situation was still iffy, but with help on the way in the form of Shene, the competition there would be stiff in August and it would make everyone vying for the job better. There was no shortage of return specialists with freshman Marshay Green emerging as a guy who could do some damage with the ball in his hands.

Unfortunately, the summer did not pan out the way everyone hoped. Schaeffer took longer to clean up his academics and become eligible than anticipated, delaying his arrival to Ole Miss to the day before August practice began.

In hindsight, most Rebel fans, me included, were so elated just to get him on campus that we ignored the obvious. We discounted two important factors. One, it takes more than three weeks for a quarterback to learn, really learn, a sophisticated college offense, and two, the WRs he would be working with had never played on this level before. The whole corps of receivers had one catch – collectively – in a game and that was by junior Carlos Suggs, who broke his collarbone in the summer and was not ready to practice when August rolled around.

It was also obvious from the start of the August journey the Rebels needed help on the defensive line and the coaches would have to draw from the freshman pool to get it in the form of Tillman and Hardy. Coupled with Johnson's late arrival and delayed acclimation and the NCAA's denial of entrance to DT Jerrell Powe, who was being counted on heavily, there were cracks in the armor that stood out.

As if that weren't enough, the player who had dominated several spring practices on the DL, Peria Jerry, was injured early in August practice and never fully recovered the entire season.

The saving graces of August were Willis being close to 100% - there was some breath-holding about that situation too; the continued improvement of the OL – the suspicions we might have a running game turned into a high probability during August; the instant emergence of frosh WR Dexter McCluster; the surfacing of Shene after a nip-and-tuck battle for the PK job with Justin Sparks; and reports that Schaeffer was picking things up fairly rapidly.

From week two of August drills, it was apparent the Rebels were going to have to rely on a bunch of newcomers.

Corey Actis, after a slow spring, started taking over the center position. Frosh John Jerry moved quickly into the number one right guard slot, further solidifying the OL as a massive unit capable of producing. Schaeffer inched forward with his progress. BenJarvus proved he was going to be the go-to guy in the rushing game. Tillman and Hardy quickly impressed the coaches. Rory showed flashes and everyone knew he would be good, but "when will he be ready?" was the question. McCluster, Green, Shay Hodge, and Kendrick Lewis were all eyeing playing time with Dexter being penciled in as a starter and Green not far behind. Shene was named the starting PK.

The Rebels entered the season with question marks galore, with most having to do with inexperience, but it was what it was. The team was a work in progress and it was time to roll the dice of the 2006 season.

Tomorrow: A look back at the season.

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