Football - the future, Part III

We don't have a crystal ball and cannot predict the future, but the 2006 season left many Rebels with hope and excitement about 2007 and beyond.

Predicting the future is not really our thing.

There are so many variables involved when discussing a football team.

Everything from academics to injuries to human error to the unpredictable nature of performance to circumstances outside of football come into play.

But it doesn't take much to get one daydreaming about the 2007 football season, even with the campaign eight months away.

With that in mind, a brief overview of the returning personnel for '07 isn't a stretch.

After talking to each position coach about next year's prospects, here are the first thoughts on paper about the upcoming season, despite it being a long time off.

Quarterback –

Offensive Coordinator Dan Werner will be the first one to tell you the Rebels have to get more out of the position, but his definition of "more" can be boiled down to one word: consistency.

"The quarterbacks in our system don't have to be superstars. It's nice when one is capable of big plays, but what I like to see is a consistent QB who makes the plays that are there," Dan The Man, entering his second year as the Rebel OC/QB Coach, said. "We should be able to develop more consistency in that position with a full offseason, spring and summer to work on everything."

Senior Brent Schaeffer is a major cog in the 2007 season and is expected to make big strides toward being more consistent in the offseason. There's little need for a long, drawn out explanation here - he's got to become more reliable and stable. He's got to play within the system and have more patience.

Senior Seth Adams got some playing time last fall and is well-versed in Werner's system, which should lead to improvement as well. Sophomore Billy Tapp – sometimes a forgotten man in the QB race, and redshirt frosh Cliff Davis and Michael Herrick should also make some noise this spring after absorbing Werner's system for a year.

Davis' key is to continue to shaking the rust off mentally after three years of pro baseball. Herrick's is to use the offseason to the maximum in terms of getting "bigger, stronger and faster."

Running Backs –

Again, as it was in 2006, the running back/fullback positions should be a strength of the team with senior BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who gained 1,000 yards in 2006, and senior Bruce Hall, who was a surprise of the team last fall, carrying the bulk of the load. RS frosh Cordera Eason will also be more heavily in the mix, it is expected. Eason has trimmed body fat and learned the ropes. He should be prepared and ready to make his mark in '07.

"We have a good situation at tailback," said RB Coach Frank Wilson. "We have some proven guys there – guys we know can get the job done against top competition. Guys who have already produced.

"I look for all of them to be improved next year and for us to continue on the path we started of having a solid running game. BenJarvus and Bruce are just good football players. Cordera is a rising star. All three can, and will, be better the second time around."

At fullback, junior Jason Cook returns for his third year as a starter while sophomore Andy Hartmann, and redshirt freshmen Reggie Hicks and Derrick Davis will provide the needed depth.

"Jason does a great job for us at a position where there isn't a lot of glory," Frank noted. "The young guys are tough and have shown a lot of potential. They need to draw more of it out in spring and summer."

Based on what we have seen with our own eyes and with Wilson's observations, there is no indication the running back positions shouldn't be a staple in the Rebs' march to an improved record.

Offensive Line –

The most improved aspect of the team from 2005 to 2006 was unquestionably the offensive line. When spring training rolled around in '06, Rebel fans were hoping for an OL that was just "functional." They got more.

First-year OL Coach Art Kehoe injected a new philosophy and demeanor into the OL troops and the results were staggering in terms of where they started and how far they progressed.

"We still have to shore up the pass-blocking end of things, but our run-blocking was consistently good for most of the year," Kehoe noted. "We got pretty good production across the board despite having a couple of injuries."

Only one starter, LG Andrew Wicker, has to be replaced off the '06 bulldozers and there are several viable candidates to choose from. While Wicker was the alpha player on the OL and turned out to be a tremendous leader, there are plenty of now-mature players waiting in the wings.

The OL will be anchored by junior LT Michael Oher and sophomore RG John Jerry, but do not discount the importance of having senior Center Corey Actis, who started every game in 2006, and late-blooming junior Maurice Miller, who started at RT the last half of the season, back in the fold.

Who will take Wicker's place? Could be senior Darryl Harris, sophomore Reid Neely, junior David Traxler, senior Thomas Eckers or senior Marcus Cohen. The good news is that Kehoe has choices that seem viable, choices that did not seem so obvious when the OL was developing in the spring and summer of 2006.

"We've got a nucleus of our starters back, which is always a plus," he said. "Now we just have to fine-tune and polish everything, find a replacement for Wicker and develop more depth. If we make the strides in year two that we did in year one, we will be really good. The ball is in our court," Art analyzed.

Tight Ends –

With Lawrence Lilly, who came on strong at the end of 2006, now graduated, the tight end slot is in the hands of the Roberts – seniors Lane and Hough. That's good news in one aspect – catching the ball, but both need to improve as blockers in an offense that relies on the tight end to spring runners for big plays.

There has been some offseason whispering about Traxler taking a stab at TE, which would certainly be an interesting move and would give the position some needed muscle.

"Robert Lane and Robert Hough are both excellent receivers who run good routes, catch the ball well and know what to do with the ball in their hands, but both will have to work extra hard in the blocking game," said TE Coach Hugh Freeze. "The good news it that Lane had never blocked before and made good strides last year in learning how to block. Hough is tenacious, but he needs to put on strength in the offseason."

Will the Rebels move someone to TE, such as sophomore WR Michael Hicks or redshirt freshman DL Cecil Frison? Or Trax? Or will they go with walk-on RS frosh Wallace McLaurin to provide some needed depth? Maybe all three.

"We're going to need someone to step up in the blocking area, but we feel we have the passing game down," Freeze added.

Wide Receivers –

The spring stable of wide receivers will be the same as the fall crop – no WR who played in 2006 graduated. Junior Mike Wallace, who emerged as the top threat as the year progressed; sophomore Dexter McCluster, who was injured the second half of the season; sophomore Kendrick Lewis, who was injured the last four games of the season; sophomore Shay Hodge, who got a lot of playing time toward the end of the year; sophomore Mike Hicks, who got spot PT most of the season; senior Carlos Suggs, who overcame a broken collarbone last year; junior Mico McSwain, who moved from tailback to WR midway through the season; and sophomore Marshay Green, who had a solid year at WR and a better-than-that campaign in the return game; all return with a full year under their belts.

"We expect the same things out of the wide receivers that we do out of the quarterbacks – after a year in the system and some experience on this level, there should be vast improvement over the offseason and summer," said WR Coach Matt Lubick, who has moved on to Arizona State since this interview took place. "Where everything was new to them this year, nothing should be this year. They will not be cluttered up mentally, which will allow them to concentrate on the finer points of being a quality receiver – route-running, reading coverages, blocking and catching the ball. "What I like about them is that they all want to be good, they all work hard and they are all eager to learn. With that attitude, I know you will see an improved receiving corps in 2007."

Those things have to happen. One year of being "green," is OK. You deal. But there should be substantial and significant improvement the second time around. Lubick believes there will be.

The question mark of improvement has now become question marks. Who will be coaching them? Coach Ed Orgeron is pondering a lot of options, one being the possibility, we heard, of moving Freeze out to WRs and shifting a defensive coach to TEs, freeing him up to hire someone on the defensive side of the ball. That's a work in progress and no decisions have been made, but we've heard it may not be just a straight "hire a WR coach" deal. It will be interesting to see how that unfolds in the next few weeks.

Offensive Overlook –

With 10 starters back, and some quality depth at most positions, there is no reason to believe the offense won't be vastly improved in 2007. Werner is certainly expecting that, but the key will be to get the passing game going. The Rebs "won" half the offensive battle last season by establishing a solid running game, but in order to be an effective offense, the passing game – including pass protection - must compliment the running game with equal efficiency. That will be the offseason task.

Much of getting that shored up will fall in the lap of the quarterback.

Defensive Line –

There is reason for optimism here. Inside, the Rebs will have a nucleus of junior Peria Jerry, senior Jeremy Garrett and senior Brandon Jenkins, all experienced players who showed the ability to play winning football. (Here's hoping the potentially-dominant Jerry stays healthy.)

On the outside, the returning players include sophomores Marcus Tillman and Greg Hardy and junior Chris Bowers. With a base of experienced players who showed improvement – if you discount various injuries - across the board, the prospects for a productive 2007 on the DL are good.

"Those guys came a long way in 2006. All of them will be a year better, all of them are hard workers who take pride in getting better one day at a time and all of them have more seasoning," said DL Coach Ryan Nielsen. "If they can stay healthy and hungry, we will have a good nucleus for a good DL."

What is the key for them? Developing some more depth. The defensive line positions in the SEC are brutal – injuries will take place. Depth will be critical, not only for taking up the slack for the wounded, but for creating a rotation to help keep players fresh. Sophomore Daverin Geralds, sophomore Cecil Frison and Kentrell Lockett, who will petition for a medical redshirt year after playing briefly before being injured in 2006, are the main candidates in spring to add that needed depth. Also, DE Larry Dennis, an anticipated mid-semester JUCO transfer, is expected to contribute quickly.

Linebackers –

The aspect of college football that you never get used to is how there always seems to be a year-to-year power shift within different units. In 2006, linebacker – led by Butkus winner Patrick Willis, arguably the best defensive player in Ole Miss' storied history, and JUCO transfer Rory Johnson, who passed up his senior season to try his hand at the NFL after making nearly 100 tackles in nine games – was a strength of the team. You could always count on P-Willie and Rory to "clean up the mess."

Those two would be hard enough to overcome, but when you throw in Garry Pack (dismissed) and Quentin Taylor (quit) into the mix of the departed, the "problem" multiplies.

What will the Rebs do at LB next year? Sophomore Jonathan Cornell showed a great deal of promise his rookie campaign. Junior Jamarca Sanford moved up from SS to OLB after Pack's departure and did an admirable job. Sophomore Don Hargroder transferred to Ole Miss and sat out the '06 season. His aggressive approach to football has caught the coaches' attention. RS frosh Allen Walker worked at LB some toward the end of the year. Converted TB Antonio Turner has some LB experience.

But nobody knows – yet – what the coaches will opt to do in terms of moving other players or keeping players like Walker and Sanford at LB.

"We've got a lot of work to do, but we believe we can come up with a plan to shore the position up. As Coach O said recently, you don't replace a Patrick Willis or a Rory Johnson, but that doesn't mean you can't be good," said LB Coach David Saunders.

One of the most interesting developments to follow in the offseason will be what the coaches and players decide to do at these all-important spots. Certainly, who they bring in via their recruiting efforts will figure heavily into the picture, but this piece is about who is available right now. The pieces of the puzzle are not connected right now. The offseason will be critical.

Secondary –

Some of the same questions that surface for the linebacker slots pop up again in the secondary where three starters – CB Trumaine McBride, FS Charles Clark and SS B. Brown – graduated.

Returning are senior Nate Banks, who had some rough spots at CB last season; junior Dustin Mouzon, who came on strong at the end of the year; sophomore Cassius Vaughn, who showed excellent promise; junior Terrell Jackson; sophomore Jamal Harvey and sophomore Markeith Summers. (And possibly Walker and Sanford, depending on what the coaches decide to do with them.)

"We will be young, but we will be athletic," said Secondary Coach Chris Rippon. "We will have to work hard to get them ready, but that is the challenge every year. I like the candidates we have coming back, and the ones we are bringing in.

"It's never easy losing guys like Trumaine, B. and Charles, but it comes with the turf. The responsibility we have will not change just because we lost those guys. We will still have to be accountable to do our jobs and getting it done is our intention."

Defensive Overview –

The DL will be better, barring injury. Linebacker most likely won't be. As Saunders and O said, you don't replace a Willis or a Rory Johnson. The secondary is a question mark, a work in progress. While this piece focuses on who is already here, recruiting results are obviously important in this equation. The coaches have to bring in some immediate help at LB and DB. There is some talent already on board, but more is needed for starting and depth purposes.

Having said that, I'd rather start with a salty DL and work from there than vice-versa.

Special Teams –

For our money, the special teams did a 180 in 2006 from 2005. They went from below average to, most of the time, very productive.

There were blocked kicks, long returns, excellent pooch-punting, superb placement kicking, good kickoff and punt coverage. There were gaffs, but I'd give special teams an "A" for 2006.

There is no reason to believe they won't be good again in 2007 because everyone "important" returns except kickoff specialist Will Moseley.

Marshay Green, Dexter McCluster and Mico McSwain will be back in the return game. All are threats to take it to the house on any touch.

Junior Punter Rob Park was as good as anyone at nailing the opposition down inside the 20 and was more consistent with his open field punting his sophomore season. Joshua Shene was a Freshman All-American PK.

And there are plenty of good athletes on board to handle coverage and protection duties. We look for the specialists to get another "A" in 2007.

Team Overview –

A big factor for the Rebels in 2007 will be the continuity in the program. Everyone now knows the systems, the routine, the demands, the opposition, their coaches, etc. That alone will pay dividends.

If some holes that have been discussed here can be shored up, which we feel there is time and talent to do so, the 2007 season should be an exciting one.

Like 2006, the '07 schedule is certainly no cakewalk. The Rebs again open with 10 games before an open break and they drop Kentucky in favor of Florida out of the SEC East. The home schedule is enticing and entertaining for the fans, but it's also brutal, with Missouri, Florida, Louisiana Tech, Alabama, Arkansas and LSU on the home slate. The road will be no picnic either – Memphis, Vandy, Georgia, Auburn and MSU.

Personally, we look for the offense to be more balanced and effective and the defense to come along as the season progresses.

The third year of the Ed Orgeron Era will be interesting, to say the least. But we can't think of a season in our tenure that hasn't been.

The football season is a long way off - half a basketball season, a baseball and spring sports season and summer away, but the anticipation is already starting to grow.

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