For quite some time, it's been apparent to most senior Rebel Fullback Jason Cook is one of the most underrated players in our league.
Maybe "underutilized" is a better word.
Based on the results of spring training, Cook, one of RB Coach Derrick Nix's prize pupils this spring, will finally become more than a blocking back in 2008. The new Rebel offensive coaches have bigger plans for him, it seems. While they have not been real keen on handing the bruising 250-pounder the ball much, he definitely figures in their plans in the passing game and showed a propensity to make hay after a reception.
Jason has always given the Rebel offense a competent blocking back, but he's also been much more than that in his tenure at Ole Miss. He's a leader in the truest sense of the word – by example, with encouragement, with words of experience, spiritually and in the classroom. Now, he'll finally be used as the weapon he can be.
It's doubtful you will see Cook catch 5 or 6 balls a game, but his inclusion will be more of a surprise element – a couple of opportune, timely chances/catches an outing – and something opposing defenses will have to plan for and expect. The more options you give a defense to worry about, the better. Cook has not been a "real" option the past three years. He will be this season because he's shown he can produce with the ball in his hands on short passes. And we all know how Coach Houston Nutt liked to sneak Peyton Hillis out of the backfield at unsuspecting times three or four times a game for big gainers.
Anyway, Jason's value to the team has always been on a high level. In 2008, it may multiply.
Cook is not the only fullback who pleased the coaches in spring training. Before his knee injury, Andy Hartmann also drew praise for his hard-nosed, throwback style of football. Andy is on the radar for ample playing time in the fall because he will stick his head in any situation against anyone. A no-fear performer who backs it up with a powerful punch. While he is not as gifted as Jason, he brings value to the table.
There are probably very few players in my 26-year history of covering Ole Miss athletics that has been as "wasted" as junior Tailback Cordera Eason. There is no justification for him not being a rising sophomore – period. Nothing can be done about that now except for Eason to make the most of his impending opportunity.
My concerns heading into spring centered on his breakaway ability and his ability to hold on to the ball. When spring began, Cordera was ripping off regular runs in the 30-40-yard range. While not an 80-yard home run threat, he showed enough pep in his step to hit the long ball and hit some in the gap for extra bases. He continued that trend throughout spring training and put an exclamation point on it in the spring game with two 40-plus yard TD runs. Granted, that was against the third team defense, but speed is speed and he showed he has enough of that valuable commodity to get the job done.
Unfortunately, my fears of his ball security were not alleviated a whole lot. Cordera started out the spring doing a nice job in that area, but as spring wore on, the fumbles mounted to an unacceptable, but not alarming, rate. Fortunately, people who know way more than I do on the subject – our coaches, feel those issues are fundamental and can, and will, be resolved. To his credit, if you are looking for a silver lining, he did not have any cheap fumbles. He got tattooed the times he lost his grip on the ball. I dare say not many backs would have been able to hold on with some of those hits, but that's all subjective. Bottom line: Eason has to do a better job of ball security in the fall. If he will take care of that issue, he will be a very good back.
Also, there is high optimism in the Rebel camp that Strength & Conditioning Coach Don Decker can help Cordera gain some more quickness and another half-step of speed in the offseason. If that can also be accomplished, it might propel him into another echelon of running back.
Sophomore Derrick Davis also had his moments in spring training, but in the end he still has not regained all the speed from a high school knee injury that made him a flamboyant star on that level. The good news is that he is regaining it slowly but surely and the inclusion of Decker's program in his regimen of workouts this summer will enhance that component even more.
Right now, however, Derrick is somewhat of a ‘tweener – between a tailback and a fullback. He will help the team in some capacity, but in order to break into the lineup as a tailback, he's got to keep pounding at the rock of movement and speed.
One of the more interesting aspects of spring training was the use of junior jack-of-all-trades Dexter McCluster. After just a few spring practice sessions, the coaches realized Dex is too valuable and too big a hitter to be at the bottom of the lineup. He needs to be batting near the top of the order. In other words, he needs the ball in his hands because of his electric qualities. Dexter, simply put, can go all the way any time he has the pigskin in his paws.
There probably hasn't been over two or three players in the modern era of Ole Miss football with his lethal quickness. John Avery comes to mind quickly. Dex can dart through a crack and hit the open seas for clear sailing quicker than you can pump a penny of gas. That is a quality Nutt and his staff will illuminate and hope to prey on the opposition with.
Dexter effectively ran some straight tailback, the Wild Rebel set, wide receiver and punt returns. It would not be a stretch to guess the coaches want the ball in his hands 12-15 times a game in some capacity.
Some of the running back situation is like shooting craps – we are waiting on the come. Ideally, you never want to have to rely on incoming players, but in reality, we will be anxiously awaiting signees Enrique Davis, Devin Thomas and Brandon Bolden. The good part of that, I have been told, is that running backs may have the easiest time of learning their positions and plays of any position, so experience, while important, takes on less urgency. (Our fingers are crossed on that assumption.)
The bottom line to all of this is the running backs had a relatively good feel in spring considering we were replacing a two-time 1,000-yard gainer in BenJarvus Green-Ellis and a very competent backup in Bruce Hall. It is difficult to replace the grit with which BJGE practiced and played with, but Eason showed some of those same qualities in spring and may have a little more get up and go in his gait than Ben.
It is also an important point Cook will be utilized more effectively.
Overall, we seem to be in good hands at the vital fullback and tailback positions. The players have bought into what's going on and our coaches seem to be keenly aware of effective ways to use the available personnel. Those are good starting points.
Running Backs -
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