JUCO transfer Tony Fein, who many feel will step in and immediately take over for graduated Patrick Willis, is - like Willis - an imposing physical specimen for a middle linebacker.
At a solid 6-2, "245-250 pounds," Fein says it's not good enough to look the part. What matters is what happens between the stripes.
He's been on the Ole Miss campus for roughly six weeks and it's been a "so-far-so-good" experience.
"I love the campus, the students, the Square - I'm definitely enjoying myself here," said the articulate 24-year old military veteran. "Football-wise, it's the hardest I've ever worked. Coach O is very intense and that's one of the main reasons I came here. I like intense. Coach (Aaron) Ausmus runs a great strength and conditioning program - you get out of it what you put into it and Coach Ausmus makes sure you put everything you have into it.
"From what I can see, we will be right up there with the upper echelon in the SEC conditioning and strength-wise. I know we work hard enough to be at that level."
Fein's body has already taken on a "slimmer" look since he's been on campus, but his weight has remained the same.
"I'm still within my weight range, but I'm leaner and have less body fat already. I can already tell a difference in my speed and strength and that translates into more confidence," Fein noted. "There's a lot of speed in junior college, but we are at a different level here.
"In 7-on-7 drills, watching Dexter McCluster and Marshay (Green) and Mike (Wallace) and all the guys run the first time, you know it's a different, higher level. It's a definite adjustment for me, but I'm getting used to it. Football is a game of angles. The angles I might have taken in JUCO are different than the ones you can take here when you are trying to run down guys like Dex. You have to be more disciplined and make sure you are taking the right angles and running as hard as you can all the time."
Tony got a surprise visit not too long ago from Willis, who was in Oxford after one of his NFL mini-camps. Patrick gave him some good advice.
"He told me to be myself, work hard, stay within the defense and play my game. He told me to be patient, do my job and let the game come to me. Patrick is a great guy. He told me the big plays would come if I just played the position the way it's supposed to be played and have some patience," Tony continued. "I feel fortunate. Only one person in the nation gets to replace the Butkus Award winner and I hope that is me. That is my goal.
"I feel I'm the best person for the job of replacing him. I like that challenge and that's another reason I came here. Fans are not going to see a clone of Patrick. I'm sure we will have different styles, but hopefully the results will be the same. After meeting him, I know he will be pulling for me and I'm pulling for him to be NFL Rookie of the Year."
Tony is anxious to get underway and show his mettle.
"I want to be a leader on this team. So far, I have been accepted very well, but I think the reason is because I came in here willing to work as hard as anyone and the other guys respect that. Actions speak louder than words. I've been to every workout and every 7-on-7 session. The older guys see that and have accepted me as someone who is earning his place on the defense."
Even though Fein has had limited - by rule - contact with the coaches, he says he's been able to pick up on the Rebs' defensive system fairly well to this point.
"The defense has come fairly naturally to me. I'm learning as much as I can. If I have a question, I ask Jonathan Cornell or someone who's been here a while. We all help each other so I think we are coming along fine," he stated. "It's a similar system to what I came from, but in JUCO it was more 'Tony, go make the play.' Now I have to realize that I have to be where I am supposed to be and at times give myself up for someone else to make the tackle. It's just learning my job and doing it."
He feels the linebacking corps will be very good this year, despite the comparisons to Willis and Rory Johnson, et al.
"I could sit here and say I don't hear what people say about us not being able to fill their shoes, but I do. It's a legitimate question - how do we replace those guys? The answer is that we have to do it as a unit and gel quickly. We have to work hard and become a cohesive unit," he said. "If we do those things, everything will fall in place."
Fein concluded by sending a message to the Rebel fan base.
"If there is one thing I can say to our fans that has impressed me since I have been here, it's that we are doing everything we can as a team to be as good as we possibly can be. We are giving 100%, the coaches are great and we are going to be as ready as humanly possible for the season," he ended.
Will Tony Fein be the next "great" Ole Miss middle linebacker? That's certainly his goal and he's working hard to reach that goal.
The time for answers is drawing near.
Tony Fein update -
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