Jonathan Cornell update -

Jonathan Cornell started spring slowly as he tried to fill the shoes of departed first-rounder Patrick Willis. But toward the end of spring, Cornell drew praise as the MLB position became more natural to him and he started making more plays. Read about it inside.

It's never easy to replace a "legend."

It's even harder to replace one when you have never played that position before.

That is the plight that faced sophomore Linebacker Jonathan Cornell this spring when he tried to step into the massive shoes left by All-American MLB Patrick Willis.

At the beginning of spring, Cornell - now nearing the 225-pound plateau - was hesitant and, consequently, was not making the number of plays the Rebel coaches were used to seeing out of the middle of the defense.

As the spring progressed, Jonathan started getting more and more comfortable and more and more - dare we say it? - Willis-like praise.

"At first, I was thinking too much, trying to make sure I didn't mess up and trying to learn the position," stated Cornell, who saw spot duty as a true freshman in 2006 at OLB. "Toward the end of spring, things started coming more naturally to me and I turned loose and just played football.

"The result of that was that I started making more plays and doing a better job. It helps when what you are doing on the football field is natural and not forced. I started getting that feeling at the end of spring - the last week or 10 days."

With that evolution of finding a comfort zone, Jonathan started preparing for the future, including plotting a way to take on more of a leadership role.

"The middle linebacker, by nature, is in a position to be the leader of the defense, but am I the leader I think I should be? Not yet because I haven't started a game yet and there are a lot of things that go into being a leader, things you have to earn," he explained. "I hope to be more of a leader during the season.

"I'm not overly concerned about that right now because we are fortunate to have a lot of leaders on defense right now - Jamarca Sanford, Jeremy Garrett, Dustin Mouzon, to name a few. When my time comes, and I earn it, I will step in with them in a leadership role."

Jonathan was asked what Rebel fans will see on Saturdays in the fall out of the defense. He believes we'll see more speed.

"We are a lot faster, overall, than we were last year from top to bottom," he noted. "I don't want to say we are smarter, but I think we are grasping things easier this spring. The defense didn't change that much and we had last year to draw from, so I think we are better versed in our assignments this time around.

"I also feel we are going to create more turnovers and we should be a lot better statistically."

Cornell said the goals for the defense are simple.

"We have to be better on third down and we have to force more turnovers. To be a great defense, we have to do those things. Defense is all about getting off the field and giving the ball back to your offense in good field position. We have to get that done," he assessed.

For his part, Jonathan believes there are strengths and weaknesses in his game.

"I'm assignment-sound. I know what to do and where to be. What I need to work on is my steps and my techniques. You can never be too perfect with your technique. It's all coming, but I still have work to do," he said.

In the offseason, Jonathan wants to get to 230 pounds and get in peak shape for the August push.

"I want to get bigger, but I want to do it naturally and not just pile on weight. I want it to be good weight so I can keep, or better, my speed," he stated. "I also want to be in good shape because August will tell the tale on a lot of guys who are hoping to be first-time starters."

Cornell may or may not be the middle linebacker next year. JUCO signee Tony Fein may be a better fit in the Rebs' defense, but it's thought number 42 - he was #11 last year - will be in the lineup somewhere.

"I have played outside and inside since I have been here and feel I can handle either. I just want to play," Cornell said. br>
Replacing a legend may or may not be in the cards for Cornell. But creating his own legacy is certainly in the realm of possibility.

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