Sophomore Linebacker Jonathan Cornell looks the part of a big-time Southeastern Conference linebacker.
He's a chiseled 6-1, 225-pounder, who is still growing, and a player who is expected to blossom this spring as he takes on the challenge of trying to help the Rebs replace the losses of All-American MLB Patrick Willis and OLB Rory Johnson.
That's a lot to put on his shoulders, but the Rebel coaching staff has no other choice. Besides Willis and Johnson leaving, Garry Pack, Robert Russell, LeRon King and Quentin Taylor, who should have been returning LBs this year, are also off the team.
To say there is a void at LB is an understatement.
Cornell, a soft-spoken sort who measures his comments carefully, believes he's up to the challenge.
"It hasn't been too bad not having them here. Patrick was our leader and he led in a way that taught us a lot about what it takes to be a good linebacker on this level," Cornell said recently. "We have some guys who can contribute to the leadership aspect and take up the slack.
"We are getting good leadership this spring from guys like Jeremy Garrett, Brandon Jenkins, Nate Banks, Jamarca Sanford and others. We don't have a lack of leadership on defense."
Cornell believes the linebacking corps is making progress little by little.
"We are going in the right direction, I can tell you that. We look pretty good in drills so far," he continued. "We've been working together and putting in extra time trying to get things right."
Cornell is currently in the middle with junior Brandon Thomas, but Rebel Coach Ed Orgeron has repeatedly said the linebacking depth chart, including which positions each will play, will probably not be determined until late in August.
"For now, I'm in the middle. In the offseason, I did what everyone on the team was doing - my best to get bigger, faaster and stronger," said Jonathan, a very articulate young man. "From a knowledge standpoint, I've been trying to absorb everything I can because that's the way Patrick did it. Mental preparation is as important as physical preparation."
Cornell seems to break down football in its simplest form in terms of personal goals.
"I'm going to play as hard as I can, do what the coaches tell me to do and accelerate as quickly as I can," he declared. "That's what it is all about. I learned from Patrick that consistency is the big key. Every snap, do your job."
Jonathan got some playing time last year as a true freshman and said he learned some valuable lessons in his limited exposure.
"I was very antsy the first time I was in a real game," he noted. "I learned real quickly you cannot panic, you have to relax. By the Mississippi State game, I was tuned in and relaxed. The early playing time helped me get adjusted for this year."
Cornell has good impressions of new Defensive Coordinator John Thompson and new LB Coach Dave Corrao.
"Both are obviously smart," he smiled. "Both are high energy coaches like Coach O. Coach Corrao is a smart dude who knows what he is talking about. He's very specific and detail-oriented. I think we've got a great mix with those coaches."
The linebacking corps is a definite work in progress. Cornell and Thomas are the only two on the squad with "true" linebacking experience on this level.
Sophomore Don Hargroder sat out last year due to transfer rules. (It was learned yesterday he is injured and will miss the rest of spring training.) Junior Antonio Turner played on the DL most of last year due to a lack of bodies there. Freshman LaDerrick Vaughn was a safety - on defense - in high school. Junior Jamarca Sanford has been moved back to safety after filling in at LB late last year. Right now, JUCO transfer Ashlee Palmer is working at Sam LB and has been impressive. And Coach O has not decided who else may be given a try at one of the LB slots, but has stated several times he will do some experimenting this spring to find the best 11 defenders to put on the field.
Cornell has a high probability of being one of them.
Cornell showed the type of promise last year that leads most to believe he is the heir apparent to Willis/Johnson. That challenge does not faze him.
"I'm just going to do the best I can do. I think I am ready to help, but I know it's important that I work hard and make an impact this spring," he closed. "And I know it's important I keep working hard in the offseason and next season."
Jonathan Cornell update -
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