While the offense has definite holes to fill during spring training, which begins today (Thursday, March 20th) at 4 p.m., it appears there are ample candidates to fill the gaps sufficiently.
We're not convinced that is the case on the Rebel defense, especially from a depth standpoint. Without question, 11 "good uns" can be found, but what about 22?
As always, we'll start up front, in the trenches, with the defensive tackles.
While Coach Houston Nutt seemed "OK" with the DT numbers in yesterday's press conference, the experience there - beyond stalwart Peria Jerry - is not very comforting.
Obviously Jerry is a stud and a good place to start in building a solid SEC defensive front, but he'll have to have help. Sophomore Ted Laurent had an excellent offseason, setting a school record in the power clean, but he does not have a lot of game experience. Sophomore Lawon Scott and redshirt freshman Justin Sanders are also somewhat unproven. Certainly the youngsters should be improved from last year - they are no longer rookies - but can we expect them to be SEC caliber this quickly? Let's hope DL Coach Tracy Rocker can get them battle-ready in a hurry.
One question that was asked of Nutt yesterday that was intriguing was whether or not junior Marcus Tillman and/or sophomroe Chris Strong, both penciled in as defensive ends for spring, might end up inside. He left the door open to that possibility in his answer. Rocker will determine where those two are best-suited, but the consensus is both can handle either position. It will be worth keeping an eye on as to the coaches' decisions with those two.
Nutt likes the "DE bodies" he has to work with. In talking to both Nutt and Rocker, it is apparent they are more concerned with speed that bulk off the edge.
The experience nod obviously goes to Greg Hardy and Tillman, but JUCO transfer Emmanuel Stephens has shown a good motor in the offseason and it's time for Kentrell Lockett, LaMark Armour and LaDerrick Vaughn to make a significant, meaningful move in spring. And it would be silly to discount Strong, who very well may have both the speed to play outside or the bulk/strength to play inside.
On paper, the defensive line can be a productive unit, but it's apparent several players will have to step up to give it the umph it needs to excel in the SEC and to provide the depth also needed. Rocker has stated he likes to play five DTs and five DEs, if he has that many ready. Right now, that many are not ready, but that is what spring is for.
Coach Nutt expressed some reservations at linebacker as well. He acknowledged senior Ashlee Palmer and sophomore Jonathan Cornell showing the "right stuff" in offseason workouts, but beyond them, he's unsure what DC/LB Coach Tyrone Nix is going to have to work with. We hope he will be pleasantly surprised with Tony Fein once the Rebs put on the pads. He's hoping Allen Walker, due to his speed, makes a move.
Jamie Phillips played a lot of productive football for the Rebels last year. Chris Bowers is taking his last shot at linebacker and has proven in the past he can be a good football player when healthy. Scottie Williams, Don Hargroder, Lamar Brumfield and Isaiah Smith will also have an opportunity to make an impression in spring. A couple of them need to step up for the health and welfare of the linebacker corps or Nutt's first impression - thin - will be true.
At cornerback, there are three - senior Dustin Mouzon, proven and ready; junior Cassius Vaughn, said to be coming into his own in the offseason; and redshirt freshman Jamariey Atterberry, who needs to emerge to give the Rebels some quality depth - and that's about it right now. The hope is Hargrave transfer Julian Whitehead gears his game up and proves to be capable of coverage against SEC wideouts. He is needed badly.
At the safety slots, there are quite a few candidates. The frontrunners going into spring at senior Jamarca Sanford, sophomore Johnny Brown and junior Kendrick Lewis, but senior Terrell Jackson, Hargrave transfer Jared Mitchell, sophomore Fon Ingram and sophomore Colby Arceneaux will all be in the mix for likely backup duties.
On special teams, Nutt does not discriminate between starters and backups, traditionally. If you show a desire to be on coverage or return teams, starter or not, you will get your chance.
But that has a long way to go before playing out.
What is of interest, however, is what the new staff will do to shore up the kicking game, which was wasn't bad a year ago, but it wasn't good either.
Junior Hustin Sparks, senior Rob Park and sophomore Bryan Powers are the lead candidates for the punting job while junior Josh Shene is the frontrunner for placements.
On the spring roster, there are several kickers listed beyond those four, but little is known about them right now. Hopefully, a more powerful kickoff man can be found somewhere in the mix, the winner of the punting competition will find more consistency and Shen can return to his true freshman form after a little sophomore slump a year ago.
Park, the returning holder on placements, and Preston Powers, the returning deep snapper, will most likely retain those jobs, while return men are abundant, starting with Marshay Green, Dexter McCluster, Mike Wallace and Lionel Breaux.
Overview: DC Tyrone Nix and the defensive staff have enough candidates to work with in some spots, but they'll be searching for folks to step up at others. It's basically the same as the offensive side of the ball - a lot of ifs and a lot of players who need to show a bit more than they have in the past. A fourth, and fifth, corner have to surface somewhere; at least five linebackers have to take charge and some depth at defensive tackle for a good rotation has to develop.
A closer look at spring training, Part II
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