Most everyone who keeps close tabs on the Ole Miss football program understood from the beginning of the 2007 season the task at hand for the linebacking corps.
"They" knew replacing Patrick Willis, headed for NFL Rookie of the Year honors, is appears, and Rory Johnson would be difficult, at best.
The replacements, it was believed, had talent, but experience is crucial in being an effective SEC linebacker.
Could the defensive coaches, in particular first-year LB Coach Dave Corrao, get that group up to speed in spring/summer in time for the '07 season?
Through five games, and starter Jonathan Cornell being out most of the season with an injury, the linebacker play had not been what anyone on the staff had desired.
Ashlee Palmer seemed to be the constant - the guy making the most plays. The rest was an ongoing experiment to get the right folks into the right spots.
Until last Saturday - when Palmer, journeyman Brandon Thomas and walkon Jamie Phillips hit the field at the three LB slots, the experiment had not gone well.
Then, against Tech, with those three doing the bulk fo the work, things clicked better for the LBs.
"We worked very hard all week leading up to the Tech game to make sure we were in the right spots at the right times," said Corrao. "They were doing what they needed to do, assignment-wise. The effort was really good too.
"The tackling was not where we want it to be, but even that phase of the game was improved somewhat."
A good performance was important to that crew, maligned most of the season.
"We needed a confidence builder," Dave continued. "When you play well, you feel good and you are motivated to play even better.
"But we are not sitting back on that solid performance and thinking we have it made. The real test of our improvement comes this week aginst Alabama. We have to continue to get better."
He knows what's in store for his group this weekend when the Tide roll into town.
"They are going to try to run the ball down our throats and we are going to have to step up and make some plays. It's that simple," Corrao stated. "This is the SEC and Alabama - like most people in the SEC - runs the football. It's our job to stop them from doing that and a lot of that falls on the shoulders of my guys at the linebacker slots.
"We have to keep working hard and getting better and better all week headed into the game. Whatever we did against Louisiana Tech is over and we can't let ourselves believe it is good enough for the next game. It was good enough for Tech, but it won't be for Alabama. That's the mentality we have to have."
Corrao said he's getting a little more comfortable with his personnel, and is seeing gradual progress out of all of them, but the depth chart is still not set in stone.
"We are still trying to find the best three linebakcers we have, day-to-day, week-to-week," he explained. "We will play the guys who have the best weeks of practice and who we feel will give us the best opportunity to be successful on defense."
Last week, it was Thomas, Palmer and Phillips. Who will it be this week? MLB Tony Fein and MLB Chris Strong were more prominent in the scheme of things the first five games, but not so much against Tech.
Freshman Scottie Williams has started getting more mention lately as a possible viable candidate for playing time. Allen Walker and Lamar Brumfield are "making strides," but are they on the radar for more game action beyond their special teams' duties?
"Anything is possible. Like I said, whoever is performing in practice will play. Last week, Brandon was very consistent and knows all three LB positions, so we put him in the middle and he did a decent job," Corrao noted. "This week, we don't know yet.
"All we know for sure is that we have to be more assignment sound and gap sound than we were the first few weeks of the season and whoever shows us they will do that will get in the games."
Alabama will come into the 11:30 a.m. contest in Oxford with a fairly potent rushing attack propelled by a very athletic, according to Coach O, offensive line.
"We will have to defeat their blocks and swarm their backs," Corrao closed. "We know they will come at us. How we handle it will tell the tale."
Dave Corrao -
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