Questions abound about the 2007 Ole Miss football team.
Finding the answers to those questions begins today when the Rebels open spring training.
For starters, Ole Miss Coach Ed Orgeron has a realigned staff, with one important new face, Defensive Coordinator John Thompson, to direct his troops.
What will Thompson bring to the table? Orgeron has complete faith in JT and says his former college coach will be caling the defensive shots.
O believes Thompson can and will operate within the boundaries of the base 4-3 system Orgeron brought in from USC, but he's expecting John to be "more aggressive" with it.
"We lost some good players, but we should be able to operate within the 4-3 system. I look for Coach Thompson to attack offenses more this year. He's a master of the blitz and I look for him to incorporate that into our schemes more," Orgeron said recently.
Orgeron and Thompson have their hands full from a personnel standpoint.
The only returning starting linebacker - Jamarca Sanford - has been moved back to strong safety, his former home, for spring.
"We may not know who our starting linebackers are until the opening kickoff," O noted.
Coach O has been close to the vest regarding position changes and a spring depth chart, but it appears the spring candidates for the linebacker positions are sophomore John Cornell and junior journeyman Brandon Thomas in the middle, transfer sophomore Don Hargroder at Will and junior Antonio Turner and freshman LaDerrick Vaughn at Sam.
The LBs also have a "new" coach. Last year's defensive GA - Dave Corrao - will be leading that charge and has O's stamp of approval as a young, energetic mentor.
Coach O has also mentioned that one of five safety prospects could end up at linebacker but he was reluctant to venture a guess on who that might be.
(The ace in the hole is the recent signing of several linebackers, including JUCOs Tony Fein and Lamar Brumfield, who will be here this summer.)
In the secondary, the Rebs will be working with four corners - senior Nate Banks and sophomore Cassius Vaughn on one side and juniors Dustin Mouzon and Terrell Jackson on the other. There is some experience in the house at the CB slots, but not the desired amount of depth.
The safety slots are inexperienced, except for Sanford, but those seem to be positions with a lot of athletic ability. Junior Sanford and sophomore Jamal Harvey will start out at SS while junior Ashlee Palmer and redshirt freshmen Allen Walker and Markeith Summers will tackle the FS slot. That's five of the better athletes on the team. Who will surface at those somewhat interchangeable positions? Nobody knows, but you have to like the prospects there. Gaining experience in the key.
Across the defensive line, the consensus is that while lacking some depth, the talent is solid and mostly seasoned. Junior DT Peria Jerry will miss spring training, but will be a stalwart in August. Senior Jeremy Garrett hopes for good health his final year at NT. When healthy, he's a very solid performer. Senior Brandon Jenkins had somewhat of a breakout campaign last year on the inside and big things are expected of him for his last hoorah. Sophomore Daverin Geralds showed promise as a true frosh last year at DT.
On the outside, sophomores Marcus Tillman and Greg Hardy, junior Chris Bowers and RS frosh Kentrell Lockett should bring plenty of punch to the DE and LEO slots, where the goal will be to get more QB pressure in spring.
On offense, the Rebels have a lot of players returning from last year's top 11 and beyond. The only major losses were LG Andrew Wicker and TE Lawrence Lilly.
From all reports we've been able to gather leading up to spring, there is an air of optimism among the offensive players. Experience does that, but they understand more in the form of production is needed. They believe it will come.
If the old adage is true that everything starts up front, the Rebel O will be in good shape. With four returning starters - junior Michael Oher at LT, senior Corey Actis at center, sophomore John Jerry at RG and junior Maurice Miller at RT - and a host of "other" candidates, including seniors Darryl Harris, Thomas Eckers and Marcus Cohen, sophomore Reid Neely and JUCO transfer Mark-Jean Louis, the OL should be improved over last year.
The general thought pattern is the goal for spring will be to fine-tune the run blocking and to up the ante in the pass blocking by a fairly wide margin. Everyone involved believes those are very realistic goals. The confidence level on the OL is extremely high.
Who will take over at LG? Due to experience, Harris seems to be the early favorite, but Neely has had an excellent offseason and Jean-Louis has shown massive raw talent that needs polishing.
At tight end, the coaches have veteran seniors Robert Lane and Robert Hough returning, but they have also beefed the position up by adding junior David Traxler, a converted OL, RS frosh Cecil Frison, a converted DL who is now 252 pounds, and converted sophomore QB Billy Tapp, who should be in the 245-pound range when August rolls around.
Veteran mentor Tony Hughes has moved over from defense and will work the TEs this spring with new Offensive GA Brad Villavaso, who will also assist Art Kehoe with the OL.
The wide receivers were as green at St. Patrick's Day last year, but a year's worth of experience should have solved some of that situation. With new position Coach Hugh Freeze directing traffic there, a big leap in productivity is expected from sophomores Dexter McCluster, Marshay Green, Michael Hicks, Shay Hodge and Kendrick Lewis and juniors Mike Wallace and Mico McSwain.
Fullback and tailback should be a strength of the team with senior BenJarvus Green-Ellis returning as the featured back and junior Jason Cook lead blocking from the FB slot. But we can't underestimate the importance of senior TB Bruce Hall and sophomore Cordera Eason, a young back on the rise, at TB, and RS frosh Reggie Hicks, sophomore Andy Hartmann and RS frosh Derrick Davis at FB.
Which brings us to the all-important quarterback position.
From the offseason feedback we've been getting, seniors Brent Schaeffer and Seth Adams are leading the pack that also includes RS frosh Michael Herrick and Cliff Davis. (Transfer Jevan Snead has to sit out next year.)
While Schaeffer has been "shy" with the press in the offseason, other players have indicated he's taking a leadership role, working hard in the weight room on his strength and conditioning, and is showing a more relaxed, at-ease posture with the offense and his returning receivers. Adams has also impressed his teammates in offseason 7-on-7 drills, showing improvement with the long ball and good accuracy and timing on short and intermediate routes. Both have gotten solid reviews from their peers in terms of understanding the offense better.
Overall, the offensive goals for spring will be to develop the running game further, with the emphasis on popping more "big" runs, and getting the passing game working - meaning better protection and better chemistry and execution between the QBs and WRs.
Will Schaeffer show the needed improvement to gain the starting slot? Will Adams' consistency be the winning ticket? Or will Davis or Herrick have monster springs and pass both? Coach O said that may not be known until August, but you can bet a lot will be learned this spring under the staff's watchful eye.
At the end of last season, and mostly throughout the year, one of the surprises of the team was special teams play.
With most of the Rebel specialists returning, there is no reason not to expect special teams to be a) improved even more; b) a strength of the team again.
PK Josh Shene had a successful run as a true frosh and his confidence is sky-high with a good year under his belt. Sophomore Preston Powers returns as a reliable deep snapper. Punter/Holder Rob Park is shooting to be a weapon this year and has worked hard to get to that goal. Jack-of-all-kicking-trades Justin Sparks has a golden shot at handling the kickoff duties and being a solid backup to both Shene and Park.
And the return game should be "electric," with Marshay Green, Dexter McCluster and Mico McSwain leading the way. Not many teams can boast of that many take-it-to-the-house kind of return specialists on one squad.
As is the case every year, there are a lot of spring questions waiting to be answered. Some will be, some won't be until later in August.
But one thing is very clear in our conversations with players and coaches alike. Everyone is on the same page and there is a tight bond on the team. That's half the battle.
Stay tuned. . .
Spring football preview -
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