The following is Part III of a series of interviews with the Rebel assistant football coaches first published in the special Grove Bowl issue of The Ole Miss Spirit. For those who have already read these pieces, our apologies.
Ole Miss Coach Tony Hughes has spent most of his career mentoring defensive players, but when Head Ccoach Ed Orgeron approached him in the offseason about moving to the offensive side of the ball to direct the Rebel tight ends, he was excited about the opportunity and challenge.
"My transition has been great," Hughes said. "Learning the offense has taken some time, but it has not been difficult for two reasons. One, the rest of the offensive staff has been very good to work with – they are a super bunch of guys who have helped me get comfortable. Two, I'm coaching good guys.
"When you are working with good people, it makes things a lot easier. The tight ends have worked extremely hard and have given us great effort. They are a close-knit group and follow instructions. I have no complaints about my transition or the effort they have given me in spring."
Senior Robert Lane was having a good spring prior to an injury which cost him some time late in spring.
"Robert is athletic and smart. He understands the whole offense because he used to be a quarterback," Tony assessed. "He understands blocking schemes, coverages, routes, the whole package. He catches the ball well and has improved his blocking, which he had never had to do before last spring. He will be an excellent asset to our offense. He can do a lot of things of value to us and can be a playmaker for us.
"Robert can continue to improve his blocking. It takes hard work to learn how to take on, and beat, the top defensive linemen and linebackers in the country. He will stay on top of that task and get it done. I also want to see him tune in and be a little more consistent in his overall game, but I was pleased with his spring."
Senior Robert Hough also drew spring praise from Hughes.
"My other Robert," he smiled, "has improved as a player. He's more mature and is capitalizing on the experience he has. He now understands the whole game and doesn't make many mental mistakes. Physically, he can really run and he's caught the ball very well this spring. I love his work ethic and attitude. He's a pleasure to coach.
"Robert gained 10 pounds coming into spring and is now around 230. If he could get up to 240-245 before next season, he'd be a heckuva player for us. He's a physical player at 230, but he'd be even more physical at 240 or so. As hard as he plays, that extra 10-15 pounds would allow him to pack more punch with his blocks and would be another weapon for him."
Junior David Traxler is one of the more interesting stories coming out of spring training. After three years of training as a rising offensive lineman at 285-290 pounds, Trax was asked by the coaches if he would like to give tight end a try. He did not flinch. This could turn out to be an outstanding move, for both parties. One, the tight end position needs more bulk for blocking purposes in the running game and for max protect sets in the passing game. Traxler's OL background makes him a natural. Two, David was having trouble maintaining and gaining weight and he felt he needed to be over 300 pounds to be an effective OL. His current weight of 260 is "more natural" to him.
"David has made a good transition to TE," Hughes said. "It's all new to him, but he's very smart and learns quickly. He already has a pretty good understanding of the position. It will take more time, but he's off to a good start. TE is a new world from being an OL, but David brings a knowledge of blocking to the table with him.
What's really been a pleasant surprise are his hands – he can catch the ball and it looks natural. He doesn't fight the ball. Certainly, he can be more consistent with his assignments and he can continue to improve his blocking from the tight end position, but he's off to a good start and should be an asset to us. When he is in there, it's like having six OL instead of five."
Another "conversion," sophomore Billy Tapp, is also working at tight end. Tapp, who played QB his first two seasons as a Rebel, is currently working on making the transition.
"Billy is very smart. Like Lane, he understands everything about the offense due to his background at QB. Billy has good hands too," Tony ended. "Again, his transition will just take time. It's a whole new world for him now. There is no comparison between playing QB and playing TE. There is a major difference in being under center and dropping back to pass compared to putting your hand on the ground and blocking defensive ends and linebackers, but he's got the will and attitude to get it down in time."
Tight End Overview: We always knew Lane and Hough were excellent receivers and can stretch the field, but there's always been a question mark about their size in this day and age of 260-270-pound tight ends. Hence, Traxler's move. That could turn out to be the best switch the coaches have made to date. Credit the coaches for having the insight to see the need and to recognize David's potential at TE. Credit Traxler for being willing to change. Nice diversity at that position now. All should be major assets to the Rebel offense.
Red-Blue Results: Lane did not play due to an ankle injury which he told us "will be OK in a week or two - no major problems.". . . Traxler caught one pass for the winning Blue Team good for 7 yards. We were amazed at how he has changed his body. On the hoof, David is very, very impressive and we could see a different fire about him as his role and value to the team has increased. This is a good move for David and the team. . . Hough was Hough - steady, reliable, tenacious and good for 1 catch for 18 yards. . . Tapp did not catch any passes for the Red Team, but he's also impressive looking in his uniform. He's got to be pushing 250 pounds now and it's easy to see he has a future at TE once he learns the ropes.
Spring Review, Part III
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