Note: The following is a sample story pulled from the special Grove Bowl issue of The Ole Miss Spirit that will be available at the 1 p.m. Red-Blue Game tomorrow. Each assistant coach was interviewed in detail about spring training. It is chock full of spring football info. Donations for the game program will go to the J.W. "Wobble" Davidson Scholarship Fund, which helps needy offspring of former Rebel athletes attend Ole Miss who otherwise would not be able to. An excellent cause. Please donate generously when you pick up your copy at either entrance to the stadium. See you at the Grove Bowl!
Offensive Line Coach Art Kehoe believes in staying positive with his players.
"Sometimes, as coaches, we tend to point out all the negatives, and you can always find them if you look hard enough, but this spring the positives outweigh the negatives with the OL guys," he said. "Everything we have emphasized – communication, line calls, jumping cadence – we are seeing on film.
"I like what's going on right now. If it continues up to the Memphis game and beyond, we have something good going here on the OL."
All Rebel fans know the OL "story."
Four returning starters – LT Michael Oher, C Corey Actis, RG John Jerry, RT Maurice Miller – and one starting slot to replace – LG Andrew Wicker. Consequently, the biggest individual goal of the spring was to find Wicker's heir to the left guard position.
"The most pleasant surprise of the whole spring has been the emergence of Reid Neely. He has become a legitimate football player for us," said Kehoe. "It's really nice to see that because he has worked his tail off and he's a tough guy who doesn't talk a lot of junk. He just gets his work done. It's always nice as a coach to be able to say ‘I've got a player' out of someone you weren't positive about and Reid fits that bill now.
"He's a real talented guy and he's coming on strong. He had a very productive and progressive spring. He's chasing, hitting, making calls, understanding – he's doing it all. He never misses and he's relentless. He's even leading some. He's completely overcome his Achilles problem and I think he will be a real good football player for us."
Kehoe said Reid's jump and Oher's production in spring have given the left side of the OL the look he's wanting.
"Even though Michael got a little hobbled with his ankle, he's had a good spring. That left side, to me, has been a pleasant surprise that has really developed," he continued. "Darryl Harris has to overcome an injury, but when he comes back, with Thomas Eckers and Marcus Cohen, we've got some good depth."
Speaking of surprises, senior Cohen has turned Kehoe's head at LT behind Oher.
"Marcus has, to me, taken a step up where we can count on him and that's important. That's a good jump for Marcus in his final year," Art stated. "We are working these guys as hard as we can work them. We had a killer scrimmage last Saturday. Before we could get together as a coaching staff to watch the film, Marcus had already eaten and was in my office watching film. He's been doing that the whole spring. He's been applying himself, giving more effort and showing more consistency. That's how you get on the field.
"That's a great thing because one thing I have figured out about this game is that it takes everybody to win. From the lowest guy on the scout team to the best player on the team, it takes every single one of them to win. We need everybody we can get and I know Marcus can help us win next year. It's all about reliability, dependability, accountability, coming in on your own, taking notes, working hard, improving in the weight room and he's done all that. Marcus and Reid fit all that this spring and that's what it's all about in getting better as an individual, a group and a team. My hat is off to them."
At center, Actis has taken charge of the whole line, according to Kehoe.
"He's our leader and puts us all in the right place. He's done a lot better too. I'm pleased with how far Corey has come this spring in his understanding of what we are doing and his efforts to communicate it," he said.
With JUCO transfer Mark Jean-Louis joining the group, Kehoe likes the competition and is starting to like the depth situation a little more each day.
"No matter what sport you are in, a big part of successful coaching is having enough position competition to challenge everyone every day. I think we are going to have position competition with the players we have on board and the incoming freshmen we have headed this way," he assessed. "That will make us all better. We already have a much better feel of what we are trying to accomplish in philosophy and concepts because we have been together a year and I feel good about the whole deal.
"Certainly, we have tons of things to do in the next months, but we are grinding and the kids are grinding it out with us. Hopefully, everything I've said shows up when we line up against Memphis."
After the first major scrimmage two weeks ago, Kehoe said there were a lot of things he wanted his group to "clean up." He said that was accomplished in last week's second scrimmage of spring.
"No doubt. Coach O said it too. We cleaned up some things and made improvements. We are getting deeply rooted with these kids that they now know what's going on, what they did wrong and how to correct it. All our research and development in the offseason is starting to show up in practices in the way the kids are applying what we are teaching," he explained. "It all comes back to four things we are preaching. Make your calls, jump cadence, play low and finish blocks. We are seeing progress in all those areas. We are not hearing ‘I didn't know it was a double team' or things like that much at all. That tells me the kids have a better feel for what we are trying to get done and they understand what's happening. That translates into more consistency and I'm excited about that. I can see our run blocking becoming more consistent and I can see our pass sets getting better.
"We have issues we have to deal with, for sure, but we are going in the right direction and that's positive. We are further along this year than we were this year this time. We expect to take a big step forward."
Kehoe seemed more focused on the left side of the line in his interview than the right side? Why? There's good reason, he says.
"I really don't think the right side is playing at the level of the right side or playing as well as they can. If I'm going to talk about guys who have been hitting, finishing, making an impact in practice, the left side has done more. The right side has to catch up," he said. "I certainly think those guys (Jerry and Miller) have the ability to do it, but ability is one thing and performance is another. They have to perform.
"If that sounds like I am trying to challenge them, I am. I think very highly of John and Maurice. I'm not saying they are playing poorly. I'm just saying they are not playing to their potential. Both are as strong as it gets. They just need to be more consistent and make few mentals (mistakes). I want both of them to start playing lower too. They will."
Redshirt freshman Don Mosley is also working at the guard slots and Kehoe has hopes for him as well.
"Don is coming along and making progress. He's also more confident now. Don is working hard and will continue to develop. We are changing his body in the weight room some and that will take some time, but he's got some potential he is trying to tap," Kehoe said.
Art said he could not allow an analysis of the offensive line to pass by without also mentioning a trio of very valuable walkons – junior Terry Freeman, a 6-3, 330-pounder from Memphis; sophomore Brent Smith, a 6-4, 280-pounder from Madison; and junior Paul Hurd, a 6-4, 280-pounder from Monroe, LA.
"All three of those guys have helped us a lot this spring. They have gotten reps with the first and second offenses and they have helped solidify us this spring," he closed. "Frankly, I don't know if we could have gotten through spring, and been as productive as we have been, without them."
Offensive Line Overview: One thing holds true in football, at any level. It all starts up front. Nobody goes anywhere without a good OL – period. Coach O has stated repeatedly the Rebel OL should be a strength of the team in 2007. After all the reviews by Coach Kehoe and talks with the players, confidence is high and productivity was good in spring. The lone individual question – LG – was resoundingly answered by Neely, who blossomed like the azaleas and dogwoods in April. For the first time in several years, there also seems to be some quality depth. Maybe not ideal yet, but better than it's been. And any overview of the OL without mention of the job Kehoe, the architect of it all, is doing would only be telling half the story. What a transformation he has directed and caused. Give these guys a spring grade of an ‘A' and you'd be right on the money.
OL 'sneak' preview
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