Spring Review, Part IX

The Ole Miss linebackers are an inexperienced bunch, but spring training and the Red-Blue Game went a long way in maturing them and showing them where they stand as they head to the offseason. Read about it inside.

Not that anyone is using it as an excuse, or even dwelling on it for that matter, but the key word for the linebacker slots in spring training is "new."

As most Rebel fans are well aware, there are only two linebackers on the whole squad who were on the team in August – sophomore Jonathan Cornell and junior Brandon Thomas. Junior Antonio Turner was a "sort of" linebacker last year, but most of the season he was filling in for injured defensive linemen and ends in practice and didn't get to concentrate a lot on the linebacker position that he had been switched to, after playing running back a year, two springs ago.

Gone is All-American Patrick Willis and his 137 tackles, his leadership, his work ethic and his total presence. Patrick, as you are well aware, is headed for a probable first-round position in the NFL draft.

Gone is one-year Rebel Rory Johnson, who came on like gangbusters around the third or fourth game of the 2006 season and piled up 94 tackles. The combination and 1-2 of Willis and Johnson was, well, pretty special. Not since Cassius Ware and Dwayne Dotson have the Rebels had a linebacking tandem as dynamic.

Also gone are Garry Pack, Quentin Taylor, LeRon King and Robert Russell, who had eligibility left but, for one reason or another, are no longer with the team.

As if that wouldn't be difficult enough to overcome, the Rebels also have a new linebackers coach – David Corrao, who was the Ole Miss Defensive Graduate Assistant last year.

But guess what? Not one solitary soul on the Rebel team is a) making excuses, b) mentioning the newness (much), or c) overly concerned the "new" guys can't get the job done.

"I really think our lack of experience has been a plus, in one way, in terms of spring football," said Corrao, who is optimistic based on the data he has gathered about his group this spring. "I think knowing they lack experience has made them try to take advantage of every opportunity to get better they have had this spring.

"I have been very pleased to have a group of guys whose intention was to get better every practice and every snap. They worked hard to get in great shape prior to spring training and they have had no days out of 15 where they dragged around and didn't get something positive done, where they didn't work hard to get better. That's a great sign."

Corrao knows the Rebel LBs are a work in progress and still have things to accomplish to get to the point of earning the classification of "SEC linebacker."

"We don't want to be SEC linebackers by default, because we don't have anybody else. We want to be a group that people say ‘those are SEC linebackers.' We want to earn that distinction," he noted.

Corrao's LB corps is short of bodies, but game in terms of effort.

"Because of depth, they are all getting a full compliment of reps and nobody has shown any signs of getting worn down or letting up," he said.

At Will LB, transfer Jamie Phillips has made the biggest impression thus far. He came in this semester after one year at Northwest Community College and made a good impression after sophomore Don Hargroder went down with an injury.

"What Jamie did well, in my estimation, was adapting to a new system and competing right away. To be able to step on campus and grasp what he has grasped and be able to compete at a fairly high level in a new environment has been a very good sign," David assessed. "What Jamie needs to do from this point on until the first game is to concentrate on his consistency and doing the little things it takes to play linebacker in the Southeastern Conference. He needs to mentally and physically prepare himself for the SEC. Jamie did a good job this spring, but there's more for him to accomplish to be game ready."

Redshirt freshman Allen Walker learned the free safety position most of last year, but was moved to linebacker late in the season. At the start of spring, he was moved back to safety, but during spring he was jockeyed back to linebacker.

"Allen is working and competing and is doing well in terms of playing hard. For him, it's an issue of learning the position and being able to play in all the defenses we run naturally and at full speed," Corrao stated. "Right now, he's having to think a lot and he's not as fluid or comfortable as he will be once he learns the position."

Hargroder, who sat out the 2006 season due to transfer rules, was a guy many thought would emerge from spring as the number one Will LB, but a knee injury cut his spring camp short.

"I know from last year Don is a very physical and explosive player. He's a high energy guy who enjoys the game and the contact part of football, but him having missed most of spring really hurt in terms of getting a true evaluation of what he can do," Corrao allowed. "I'm anxious to see him come back healthy so he can show us what he's got."

At Middle Linebacker, the slot vacated by Willis, sophomore Jonathan Cornell has pleased Corrao as a "work in progress."

"Jonathan is still learning, but he is a much better linebacker now than he was at the start of spring, by far," David said. "In our last scrimmage, he made a lot of excellent plays. He's starting to look like and SEC Mike linebacker. Jonathan, who is 220 pounds right now, will get bigger naturally and with hard work in the weight room. What I need him to embrace is the fact that he's the quarterback of the defense – he's the guy. I need him to take that responsibility and play as a leader with a lot of confidence. I believe he will reach that level in August."

Junior Brandon Thomas is also at MLB.

"I am pleased with Brandon's effort. He's usually in the right places and he makes the big hit now and then. Brandon just needs to work on his consistency and conditioning. He's a player with some age on him, so we feel we can trust him," Corrao continued.

At the Sam LB slot, Turner and JUCO transfer Ashlee Palmer are in a neck-and-neck battle.

"Antonio is showing flashes and has some explosiveness. He just needs to bring it on every play. He needs to learn what to do on every play and play faster on every play. He's made good progress," noted David. "When we moved Ashlee from safety, we wanted to see if he was physical enough to do the things linebackers in this league have to do. He has shown us he is extremely tough – he's been knocking guys out, so to speak, taking on everyone without flinching. The knowledge of the position is his key. As he learns more, he will play faster. When he gets unlocked mentally, I think he will be a very good SEC linebacker."

True freshman LaDerrick Vaughn is also competing at Sam and is in the first-time learning process.

"LaDerrick has come a long way this spring. The one thing I have noticed is that he will take on anyone – he's very, very tough and does not shy away from anything. He's just got to keep working and learning and getting stronger," Corrao stated.

Linebacker Overview: Corrao mentioned he is excited about the arrival of some signees to bolster the depth situation and make his three positions more competitive. In the meantime, he's pleased with what his group has accomplished this spring. Realistically, and for all practical purposes, spring was a good starting point, but a big offseason and two-a-day camp will be required for the Rebel linebackers to reach the level needed in our rugged league. The good thing is that new eventually becomes old and experienced. How soon will be the key.

Spring Game Update: Corrao was fairly pleased with the play of the LBs in the Red-Blue Game.

"I thought the Blue Team did a really good job with Allen and Ashlee playing real fast. They still have assignment issues to take care of but I think those issues will be cleared up as long as they continue giving that type of effort," Dave said. "I believe Jamie had 10 tackles. He was very productive. Jonathan was active in running the defense, running the show in a live fire situation and that's the stuff he needs. Antonio – same thing – getting needed experience and repetition, which is what all of them need.

"Jonathan had a good day with his assignments and making the right calls. From the beginning of spring until the end, he is showing the leadership we need, that we have to have. He still has work to do, but he's made progress."

In the Red-Blue Game, Rebel fans were getting their first looks at Palmer and Phillips. His assessment of their status?

"Jamie was a very pleasant surprise – that he could come in and function at that position. Again, he needs work on his technical stuff. One of our big concentration areas will be our footwork. We have to have great footwork. If you don't have great footwork, you get caught in bad position and you can't make plays. All of us need to get better at that," he said. "Once Ashlee develops the consistency he needs, he will be a good SEC LB. Antonio had the edge this spring because he does have some experience in the system, but he has to get more consistent as well.

"Consistency will be our key. Whoever emerges as the most consistent in terms of being in the right place at the right time, and turning that positioning into making plays, will win the starting jobs. You've got to make plays. We have to figure out who is being consistent and who our playmakers are. We can't replace Patrick Willis – he's a once-in-a-lifetime player. I'll be lucky if I ever coach one as good as him, and I'm a young coach. Rory was the flash of lightning making plays that we needed at the time. We won't replace them, but what they did was increase the level of expectations for future players at those positions. They showed the young guys the way to do it right. The transition, like I said, is a consistency issue and I don't think we are there yet."

Corrao has the likes of JUCOs Tony Fein and Lamar Brumfield coming in soon. What is his prognostication for them?

"I'm looking for a mature leader out of Tony. We don't have an experienced player at linebacker. Tony is older and is a no-nonsense kind of young man. He's big, physical and he will light you up. He's got to be that force in the room that drives everyone. Lamar is more physically developed and mature as well," Corrao noted. "He's got to come in and be the athlete we need him to be, playing sideline-to-sideline and making plays in space. We've got to get them ready to play, no doubt."

Dave is not only coaching inexperienced players, this is his first year as a fulltime assistant coach.

"The pressure intensifies now because I'm responsible for the end result of the linebackers, not only on the field but off the field as well. Thankfully, I am in the staff meetings with Coach (Ed) Orgeron, a defensive guy, Coach (John) Thompson, who has coached LBs a lot in his career, and Coach (Chris) Rippon, who has coached LBs too. I can draw a lot of things from them. As I gain more experience and consistency, it will be reflected in the play of our linebackers," he stated. "I had a jump on the job because I know the defense, having been the defensive GA last year. The past two years, I was very involved in everything and my knowledge of the defense is good. Coach O makes sure GA's are in on everything and that helped me a lot."

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