(Seventh in a series of interviews with the assistant football coaches regarding spring training.)
Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach Tyrone Nix knows it takes talent to play in the SEC, but when you ask him about the Ole Miss linebackers, that's not something he harps on.
It's what he calls "the little things" that he's looking for and, he said, he got a healthy, but not complete, dose of it in spring training.
"They responded in a positive way this spring. We still have a lot of room for improvement, but overall our attitude is much better and they are beginning to understand what it takes to be a successful linebacker in the SEC," Nix stated. "That's consistency, that's leadership, that's leading by example, that's work ethic – all the little things that you have to do on a consistent basis. You can't be afraid to be out front, and I think we have some guys stepping in that direction."
The Rebels will run a 4-3 base defense, meaning a middle linebacker and two outside linebackers will be in the mix most of the time. From those three positions, he wants more leadership when fall rolls around.
"Ideally, you'd like a lot of your leadership to come from the linebackers. I hope that develops. I know they have the potential, but most of the leadership in spring came from our front four and most of that came from DT Peria Jerry," he continued. "The LBs are working hard and have made positive steps, but I want to see more in August."
At the Sam LB position, sophomore Allen Walker has been one of the surprises of spring training.
"Allen has been a pleasant surprise and has actually been the most consistent of all our linebackers in spring. He's making plays and hasn't made a lot of mental mistakes. I'm really happy with him and what he's done. I am excited about seeing him continue to improve," Nix began his individual assessments.
Behind Walker is junior Lamar Brumfield.
"Lamar is a kid who hasn't played a whole lot, but he brings a little more size to the position and someone who can stop the run effectively for us. He's been fairly consistent too and has improved. I look for him to be in the rotation next fall," said Nix. "Behind him is redshirt freshman Isaiah Smith. He's a young guy who has a great attitude and great work ethic. I think he'll be an adequate backup in the future and I think he can contribute on special teams."
At middle linebacker, sophomore Jonathan Cornell is coming off an injury-shortened 2007 season, but it looks as if his recovery is complete. He did not miss any time in spring training.
"He started the spring with the ability, the footwork and all the tools. He's very knowledgeable. What I would like to see from him is to become a more physical player against the run. He is playing well and knows the scheme, but I'd like to see him become more physical and to assume more of the leadership role," Nix commented. "Behind him is senior Chris Bowers, who has been a defensive end most of his career. He really looks the part with his frame, size and tools. This spring has been very good for him. Hopefully he'll be a finished product in the fall and will be ready to play a lot of football for us."
Senior Tony Fein is next in the pecking order, followed by senior Brandon Thomas, who has played some on the outside as well.
"He's the most physical linebacker I have, but I have to get him in the right spots more often. When he's right, though, he arrives with an attitude and that's his strong point," Nix added. "Brandon is study. He's a plugger who can fill a lot of roles for us next fall. All four of our MLBs can help us next year and that's a plus."
At Will LB, senior Ashlee Palmer has been the go-to guy all spring.
"Ashlee has been one of our playmakers this spring, but I want more consistency from him, not just flashes. I expect him to provide some leadership and playmaking ability in the fall," Tyrone stated. "Behind Ashlee is sophomore Scottie Williams. He played a little last year as a true freshman and is still learning the position, but he has a ton of ability. He can really run, but he needs to become more physical and more instinctive. I love his talent though. He's just raw.
"Redshirt freshman Trey Tripp is next in line. He's providing depth and is a great kid who works hard. One day, he'll be able to help the Rebels."
Overall, Nix has put three of his better athletes on the field at the same time in Palmer, Walker and Cornell. All of them can run and speed, as we know, is a big part of the game, but Tyrone is also hoping for a more physicality, more brute force, from his linebacker unit. Hopefully, when all assignments are learned and more consistency of play is developed, he'll get his wish and see more guys turning loose and making big hits.
Linebacker was expected to be a need area, but with the emergence of Walker as a first-teamer, which was a little unexpected, Cornell's health being fine, and backups Williams, Brumfield and Bowers, all somewhat coming out of the woodwork, the linebacker slots developed more of a solid feel in spring.
Nix briefly talked about the defense as a unit.
"There is no doubt we have made improvements during spring on the defensive side of the ball, but what we will continue to stress during the offseason and summer is playing with consistency and with a purpose," said Nix. "That purpose is all 11 guys getting to the ball. That is one thing we have stressed and improved on this spring. We have guys really straining to get to the ball now.
"We want guys having a desire to get to the ball, no matter what. We want our guys understanding it is not acceptable to be blocked. It is not acceptable to miss a play. We need all 11 guys to be team players and we need all 11 guys making plays and being around the ball at all times. We've seen strides in those areas. Now we just have to keep striving for that every single day between now and the opening of the season."
It doesn't sound like "coach speak" when Ole Miss Defensive Coordinator Tyrone Nix tells his side of the story about the defensive performance during spring training.
It sounds like the truth. . . .
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