Ole Miss senior Middle Linebacker Tony Fein said he and his Rebel teammates are motivated to do better, much better, in 2008 than the disaster that was the 2007 season.
And it doesn't take much imagination or thought to pinpoint where the motivation is coming from.
"We are working real well right now - we are highly motivated," said Fein. "We feel good about next year. Coach (Houston) Nutt and his staff have come in here preaching about us having enough talent to win and get back to our rightful place as one of the best programs in the SEC.
"That motivates you right there, but it really comes from being 3-9 last year, too. It was embarrassing. It was a tough season for everyone involved. We don't want to feel that way again, none of us do. We are going to do whatever we have to to win."
Fein believes the positive approach the new coaching staff is taking has given the Rebels a lift.
"Like I said, the staff believes in our talent and our ability. We believe in ourselves. We have talent - look at our roster," Tony noted. "I look at the guys in the huddle with me and I know they are good. I look on the other side of the ball and see guys like Jevan, Michael Oher, John Jerry, Dexter McCluster, Mike Wallace and on and on.
"We really don't have any excuses not to win. There is no reason why we can't go out next year and produce. We have a lot of guys with experience coming back and we have new guys coming in who should make an immediate impact.
"Really, no excuse. None. Get it done. We know what difference the little things will make. We worked hard last year, we really did, but everyone works hard who is trying to win on this level. What we have to focus on, and our staff is demanding, is to do the little things correctly because they make a big difference."
A new defense will be introduced this spring, but Tony says it will not be hard for him, or anyone for that matter, to pick it up.
"We've all had experience now in learning a Division I defense, and they are both a 4-3 defense," he explained. "I'm not starting from scratch this year and neither are any of the other returnees.
"The experience we got last year will make it a lot easier to adjust to a new system. This time, personally, I get a spring too. I didn't last year. I'm also not a new guy, I'm established, which will help a lot. Also, I have played with the other LBs and DL. We can communicate better this year and we know each other better. We have an unspoken bond now. We can make adjustments on the field now because we know each other. I'm more confident and I can see that in the other players as well. Experience will do that."
Also, he noted, there are not huge differences in the two packages, from what he has seen thus far.
"Most everything is kind of similar to what we did last year so the adjustment is not as major and none of us will be starting from scratch, as I said," he continued. "We feel like it's more of a progression going on than a total change in concept and systems."
Fein's personal goals in the offseason and spring center around speed and knowledge.
"Coming in last year I did not fully understand what to expect coming from junior college where it was 'Tony, go make the tackle' to a more structured, fast style of play," Fein stated. "This is the elite of the elite and you have to be prepared for not only bigger and faster, but for well-schooled.
"I want to work on knowing the defense 100% going into the season and not trying to learn it on the run during the season. I was thrown into the fire a bit last year and the expectations were high on me considering who I was replacing (Patrick Willis). I feel good about the way I finished last season and my confidence level is high that I can pick up where I left off.
"I also want to work on my speed and have already begun that process with (S & C) Coach (Don) Decker. I am more agile and quicker already," he said. "I think I focused too much on strength last year, which was the wrong way to go. I am strong now. I'm not getting pushed around. What I need work on is being more agile and being in peak condition. Coach Decker is focusing more on stretching, agility and speed with me. It will pay off - it already is."
In retrospect, Tony feels like he may have put a little too much pressure on himself to live up to the standards Willis had set.
"Looking back on it, we had to replace all three linebackers and I was the most high-profile guy coming in during the summer. Replacing Patrick put a lot of the spotlight on me and that was pressure," said Fein. "But I feel I progressed despite the pressure. I had 16 tackles against Auburn, 15 against Arkansas, etc. When I figured out what I was doing, I made plays and got more and more confident. I also left the comparisons to Patrick behind, which helped."
And then there was the losing. . . . it certainly took its toll.
"We were a desperate team last year, doing everything we could do get a win, so that was even more pressure, but I think all of that is behind us now, and I know it's behind me," he added.
Early in the semester, Tony had a misunderstanding that almost cost him his place on the team. That is all behind him now.
"I don't want to get into the details, but it was exaggerated. When you are an athlete, sometimes things get blown out of proportion and people speculate that something is worse than it really is," he noted. "Obviosuly, if it was bad or detrimental to the team or I had integrity issues, I would not be here. Everyone knows Coach Nutt is not going to put up with anything bad. I went to him and told him my side of the story and everything is fine.
"We are on the same page. I know what is expected of me. The regret I have is that my name was sullied a little bit and that's not the type of guy I am. I am respectful and a nice guy. I'm glad that misunderstanding is over and it did not affect the way the coaches or my teammates look at me."
Tony Fein is starting with a clean slate. New coaches, new season, new chance to be a part of a winner, but with a year of experience under his belt.
Everything fine with Fein
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