When John Thompson was hired as the Ole Miss defensive coordinator in January, he knew spring training would be a grind for everyone involved, but he also knew it would be fun and exciting in his collaboration with Head Coach Ed Orgeron in trying to figure the defensive puzzle out.
After 14 practices, J.T. believes a lot has been accomplished.
"We've been grinding. Everyone has been putting in the time and the effort to get it right and I think we are headed in the right direction," said Thompson, who has an upbeat, positive personality. "By the time the spring game is over, we will have had something like 1500 reps – that's a lot, but every single one of them was needed and required.
"It's really been fun getting to work with all the coaches on this staff and getting to know our players. I'm very confident we now know where we are as a defense, where our players are and have a clear view of where we need to go. That's what spring is all about."
Thompson was extremely pleased with the effort of the defensive players during spring training.
"It's clear to me the players here have been trained to work hard and expect to work hard. Coach Orgeron has instilled that in this program and every player has bought into that. The work ethic here is as good as any I have seen," he said. "Our guys have given us great effort every single day.
"We've had some injuries, we've had to lean on some kids to step up their games to accomplish what we wanted to in spring and we've had to accelerate things with a lot of players, but every one of them has accepted that and worked hard. That is a testament to this program and the foundation Coach O has established here. We will see results from this type of effort."
Thompson is the DC, but position-wise he works individually with the cornerbacks. Before delving into the progress of the CBs, he had a brief analysis of the other units of the defense, starting with the DL.
"We've had some injuries up front, but guys like Ben Benedetto and David Densmore have filled in nicely and stepped up. Marcus Tillman has had a big-time spring. He's quiet and you sometimes don't notice everything he is doing until you watch the tape. Then you see him knocking down passes and doing little things that add up," J.T. continued. "Kentrell Lockett has shown flashes of improvement and production. Having Greg Hardy back the last week has helped. This is a hard-working group –as I said, they have been trained that way."
The linebacker positions have shown him a lot of progress, but he says there is still more to be made.
"The summer is huge for these guys. They are green and raw, but all the reps we have had in spring are paying off," he noted. "Jonathan Cornell has gotten better and better with each practice. Jamie Phillips has made plays and has been a nice surprise. Antonio Turner and Ashlee Palmer have had a good battle for a position.
"We aren't a finished product at linebacker, but we can see some light at the end of the tunnel based on a productive spring."
At safety, John recognized an "old reliable" and a pleasant surprise.
"Everyone in the secondary has to become a better tackler, but I am happy with Jamarca Sanford at the strong safety slot and Kendrick Lewis at free safety has been a very big surprise," he continued. "Kendrick has a knack and a swagger about him. We need more of that in the secondary."
At cornerback, Thompson has three scholarship players and three walkons.
In no particular order, he assessed the springs of each, with junior Dustin Mouzon first.
"Dustin has been the most consistent of our corners. He has come to work every day and has competed every day," John stated. "If I point out a problem he has, he works to eliminate it and has usually been successful. I'm really pleased with his progress."
Sophomore Cassius Vaughn, who played sparingly at corner as a true frosh last year, but was instrumental on special teams, caught his eye next.
"Cassius needs to gain some consistency, and he did some in spring," said J.T. "He needs to learn to play every snap as hard as he can. If you don't, it's like playing Russian Roulette, you never know if the bullet is in the chamber when the trigger is pulled. He has to learn he cannot ever – ever – relax. When he has been tuned in, he has made some big plays and shows good skills."
Senior Nate Banks was a starter last year, but after a tough season he is now trying to earn a starting slot back.
"Nate has approached spring with an excellent attitude and has worked really hard. In doing so, he has gotten better. He is still battling to win a job and definitely factors in to our rotation in some capacity. How much will depend on him and the offseason and August he has," Thompson evaluated.
Senior Kyle Hill, RS frosh Mike Dzura and sophomore transfer Rob Campbell also got plenty of work in spring training.
"They are all excellent young men we are glad to have on our team. They got a lot of reps in spring training and have done well. I'm very pleased with them and to have them on board," he closed.
Defensive/CB Overview: It's good to have upbeat, positive coaches. It's even better to have hard-working, attentive players. Those are battles you can control. What you can't control are injuries and being thin in the depth department in spring drills. That was the case this spring, from all accounts we can gather. There seems to be little question the available defensive players have ability, the coaches have a plan to maximize their potential and everyone is on the same page. But are there enough players on campus to put together a solid defense? Healing of the injured, more work/progress from the able and the incoming players being good enough will tell that tale. If the Rebels played tomorrow, the answer would probably be "no." But they don't play until September and by then names like Peria Jerry, Chris Bowers, Greg Hardy, Brandon Jenkins, Jeremy Garrett and several newcomers will be more prominent in our reports. They are keys. Fans sometimes get tired of the phrase "work in progress," but if there was ever a year when that applied, this is it. Hold on. A lot will happen in the next few months and most of it should be positive. In talking with everyone involved, we get the feeling the dynamic and coupling of Orgeron and Thompson, along with the rest of the defensive staff, is going to pay dividends in short order.
Red-Blue Results: Mouzon led the Red Team in tackles with 10. The Rebel "starters" at corner did not give up any long passes and were relatively efficient at getting receivers on the ground after short-to-intermediate receptions. The corner slots are a work in progress, for sure, but they played with a little more confidence in the spring game than we were anticipating considering both Mouzon and Vaughn are first-year starters. . . As for the whole defense, Thompson said the same things Orgeron did postgame. The Rebs have got to get some players healthy and they have to add depth to the middle to toughen it up.
Spring Review, Part VII
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