If we don't get dozens of football questions a day - no matter what other season is in session, the Ole Miss fan base "feels" like it has a collective case of the flu.
That is the norm around here because football is the bell ringer in the athletic department. As much as we love our other sports, that is fact. We all know it.
Ever since new Coach Houston Nutt said he was going to open spring practices - which begin this Thursday, March 20th - to fans and media, the questions have multiplied, but most of them are premature.
I wish I could answer how good QB Jevan Snead or TB Cordera Eason or Defensive End Emmanuel Stephens, et al, are going to be. . . I really do, but legitimately, I cannot.
We will all have to wait for spring practice to get underway, and most likely, to get five or six practices in before any of those answers start to surface.
Right now, all I know for certain is that the attitude of the team, collectively, has taken a positive turn. Players seem more into the offseason, happier and more together.
There's more smiling and less tension surrounding the program, from top to bottom.
The coaches have stressed repeatedly that getting the kids to work hard has not been an issue. A good work ethic has been drilled into them, but the approach is different. Now, the hard work is born out of the desire to get better and the joy of the game rather than fear of reprisal based on demands and pressure.
The one thing I can predict without hesitation is you - we - will see a looser, more relaxed, more determined team.
Nutt's goal is to make this team into one big family and you can see that developing more and more on a daily basis.
There is much more interaction among players and coaches than there was previously and the players are responding to that treatment in a productive way.
I say all of that not to down the prior staff, but to compare and to let you know what's going on with the psyche of the team now as we embark on a new era. Hopefully, that is the last time I will feel the need to make that type of comparison. What's done is done and what's happening is good. I'll leave it at that.
Moving on, if we are to simply look at the available personnel on campus, there are definite pluses and minuses Nutt and his staff have to work with.
I see no reason why the offensive line cannot be a strength of the 2008 team. Sure, OL Coach Mike Markuson has to replace a starting center, but Daverin Geralds and JUCO transfer Brandon Green look like competent candidates. I also like the thinking of moving John Jerry to right tackle from right guard and working last year's starting RT - Maurice Miller - at both tackle and guard. Also, look for Rishaw Johnson to make an impact at right guard as well. With Michael Oher and Reid Neely anchoring the left side, there is legitimate optimism about the OL.
I'd have to give the wide receivers a ditto on the "no reason not to succeed" thinking as well. With their experience and ability, they should be a productive unit, made even better by the insertion of a guy most believe will be the best QB here - maybe by far - since Eli Manning in sophomore Jevan Snead, who appears poised to have an excellent season and career here.
At fullback, Jason Cook is one of the most underrated players in our league. He gets the job done. Enough said. At tailback, however, there is work to do. I have a lot of faith in Cordera Eason being a very productive player, but the others need developing and Cordera still has not proven much except he has patience and confidence.
On the defensive line, with stalwarts like Peria Jerry, Marcus Tillman and Greg Hardy back, it's a very similar situation as the OL - why wouldn't they be a very good unit? Look for Stephens to factor in there as well. Kentrell Lockett? It's time for him to make a move too. And from what I am hearing about the offseason, Ted Laurent and Lawon Scott are turning some heads with their workouts. I know DL Coach Tracy Rocker is excited about them. Again, we shall see.
At the linebackers slots, the belief is Ashlee Palmer and Tony Fein are good to go and should be much improved over last season, their first taste of Division I football. Will Jonathan Cornell be in contact drills or held out as a precaution due to his season-ending injury a year ago? We'll know soon enough. And what about Allen Walker and Scottie Williams? Isn't it time for them to make a break through to higher status?
In the secondary, depth at corner will have to be addressed but Dustin Mouzon and Cassius Vaughn have impressed S&C Coach Don Decker with their offseason workouts. Jamarca Sanford and Johnny Brown will be the frontrunners at the safety slots with solid play also expected from Kendrick Lewis.
Spring will also be a time for first impressions. The new coaching staff does not have any preconceived notions about any of the players. Well, almost any. Of course they are aware of the "big names" like Oher and the Jerrys and Snead and Wallace and McCluster and Palmer and Tillman and Hardy and Sanford, et al, but even they have to prove themselves and show their mettle. They will not be given a position.
You have to expect them to perform, but what will be interesting will be who takes it up a notch. Who does like The Jeffersons and moves on up to the east side? The high rent district as stalwarts of the team. There's really no telling who will take a position by the throat and strangle it.
And that is what makes spring fun to follow - the unexpected or the emerging.
Is it Walker's time? Markeith Summers? Fon Ingram? Jeremy McGee? Lockett? Chris Bowers making a comeback? Ditto on Cornell. David Traxler or Gerald Harris at TE? Laurent? Or a dozen more worth watching and monitoring?
Today, Coach Nutt will have a press conference outlining his expectations, but we can already guess what some of his goals will be.
Depth is always an issue with every coach, every spring. Developing depth will certainly be one of the major goals this spring. He's told me he has some depth concerns, particularly at corner, linebacker, tight end and a few more big bodies who will be ready to go in 2008.
Getting the offensive and defensive systems in will also be a priority. For some of these kids, this will be their third - a couple even their fourth - offensive system in their careers here. That's some pretty heady stuff that takes time to develop, but it can and will be done.
It will also be important for Houston and his staff to get a firm grip on special teams, i.e., the kicking game, before fall rolls around. At Arkansas, no player - inlcuding RB Darren McFadden - was immune or excluded from special teams participation. Expect the same here.
Yes, spring football is right around the corner and we can't wait for the action to begin and some answers to your questions to come into better focus.
It's time. I'm tired of saying "I don't know" when a question is posed.
Hope to see you out there. . . .we'll figure it all out together.
Spring football is here!
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