Secondary Coach Chris Rippon – in conjunction with new Defensive Coordinator John Thompson, who is primarily handling the cornerbacks while Chris works more with the safeties – says it's not easy replacing the experience that was in the Rebel defensive backfield last year.
"Trumaine McBride and Charles Clark, along with B. Brown, were all senior starters who were very steady and knew exactly what we were trying to do in the secondary," Rippon said. "That's a lot of experience to replace, but we are getting there. Spring was, for all intents and purposes, productive."
Rippon began his spring evaluation of strong safety with junior Jamarca Sanford, who began the 2006 season there as the starter, but was switched to OLB for the last few games after some mid-season attrition of the linebacking corps left the Rebels short in that area.
"I think playing linebacker helped Jamarca see the whole picture of our defense and now he's applying some of that to the strong safety position," Rippon explained. "He's had a great spring and has been very accountable. Jamarca has matured as a player and is seeing the big picture now.
"He's not a flashy player, but it's because he's not in a real flashy position. He's been steady and he's making the plays that come his way. He's confident and gives our secondary some stability. I'd like to see him continue to work on his open-field tackling, but he's the kind of player who wants to do well and will do whatever it takes to succeed."
Redshirt freshman Markeith Summers is also battling at the strong safety slot. Chris believes his day will come, but for now Summers is in the learning process. Mainly, he's learning to play in space.
"Markeith is coming along, but you can tell he's still making that transition and still trying to figure things out," Rip noted. "He's shown glimpses of skills that are excellent. He's a solid tackler, he has good hands and he has good range, but he has to gain some confidence about playing in space. He has to develop his agility and his ability to play in space."
Due to a lack of bodies in the secondary, Rippon searched the roster for a guy who could fill in and possibly develop to provide some depth there. He asked Placekicker Christian Alberracin, a senior from Corinth, if he would like to give strong safety a try. The answer was a resounding ‘yes.'
"Christian is a young man who loves Ole Miss football and will do anything for the team that you ask," said Chris. "He played some scout team strong safety last fall and is very serious about it. In the offseason, he worked his tail off to get stronger so he could help even more by being stronger and more physical. He's a serious young man who adds maturity to our group. He is definitely a part of us, in every way. You can't help but love a kid like that who is willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win. His importance is not lost on me."
At free safety, Rippon got a pleasant, and needed, surprise this spring when sophomore WR Kendrick Lewis was moved to defense. Lewis has made the most of the switch.
"What I love about Kendrick is that he is a conceptual thinker on the football field. He gets the concepts of what we are doing. He's a guy who can anticipate adjustments and make them on the fly. He understands why we're doing what we're doing and he's athletic enough to carry his assignments out," Rippon continued. "He's like Charles Clark, but more athletic than Charles. Kendrick does a nice job in space. I think he will be a playmaker for us with his athleticism and the way he understands the game. You don't run across a lot of players who have his instincts. If they are athletic enough, which he is, they usually become playmakers for you."
Another move that seems to have worked out is junior Terrell Jackson switching from cornerback to FS this spring.
"Terrell is a better safety than he was a corner. What has surfaced at free safety with him is how physical he is. He will definitely hit you," smiled Rippon. "That's hard to get a handle on at corner where they are primarily in coverage, but Terrell likes striking people and is now in a position to do so. Terrell is more confident and comfortable at safety and that will translate into him being more productive there as well. He's bought into the position and is learning at a rapid pace. The move has worked out well for him."
Sophomore Jamal Harvey is also in the mix at free safety, but he had a setback in spring. He's had to miss some practice time to shore up his academics.
"There's no question that Jamal has what it takes physically," Rippon stated. "He just has to get back on the right track off the field as well. I think he will."
Redshirt freshman George Helow is also working at free safety. He came to Ole Miss last year after playing at Hargrave and has, according to Rip, "a deep love of the game of football."
"Man, George flies around and is a lot like Christian in that he loves the game and will do anything to help the team," Rippon closed. "With his want-to, George will have to get a look on special teams. He's good to have in our group."
Safety Overview: It's pretty apparent the safeties have an experience anchor in Sanford and it's also apparent the move of Lewis to the free safety slot was a stroke of coaching genius. Lewis has drawn excellent reviews from everyone involved, and those types of reviews have not been handed out flippantly by the coaches this spring, which makes us feel good about his progress. It's also satisfying to hear Jackson has found a home and Summers is moving forward slowly but surely. The one disappointment is Harvey, but he's got time to get things right. When he does, he will add a lot to a unit that gained some stability in spring. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Red-Blue Results: Sanford, as is always expected, was one of the leading tacklers for the Red Team (1st team defense) with seven stops and an interception. He continues to show he's one of the top players on the Rebel team and a reliable producer. Lewis had three tackles, but more importantly he looked comfortable in his new position – poised and confident. On the Blue Team, Jackson and Summers – we were told – carried out their assignments satisfactorily. Rippon said they made progress in spring and that was apparent, especially out of Jackson, who seemed very active, in the Red-Blue game. The offseason is critical to both.
Spring Review, Part VIII
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