How confident and comfortable are the Ole Miss football coaches with Coach Ron Dickerson's wide receivers?
How else could you explain their brash move to take one of the best wideouts on the team – Marshay Green – and move him to cornerback? Sure, the corner positions need help, but you can bet Green would not have been switched if the Rebel staff felt the move would weaken the wide receiver corps substantially.
From the start of spring training, Ole Miss Coach Houston Nutt and Dickerson praised the wideouts as a strength of the team.
Flash back roughly a year ago and that was simply not the case. Last season changed a lot of minds about the group but going into the 2007 roundup there weren't too many people who had a lot of faith in that group.
Coaches say it all the time, but it all boiled down to having no experience at all to gaining said invaluable commodity.
In evaluating any position(s), most writers start at the top of the food chain, which is the logical beginning, but with the Rebel receivers, the ‘bottom' may have been the difference in the spring. The emergence of at least two performers strengthened the position significantly and allowed the coaches some options, namely to move Green.
A pair of sophomores – Lionel Breaux and Markeith Summers – were Phoenix-like, rising from the ashes, so to speak, to make an indelible mark on the unit. Breaux's was a case of gaining needed experience and Summers' rising was a case of being resurrected mentally and from a confidence standpoint. And both benefited greatly from having a new gunslinger – Jevan Snead – under center.
Breaux started to emerge late last year, according to then WR Coach Hugh Freeze, but it was hard to validate that without being able to witness practice sessions, but it was no major surprise when Breaux hit the ground running in spring and became, in time, one of Snead and Billy Tapp's favorite targets. As they said, Lionel had a knack for getting open, especially on intermediate routes. He was also not bashful, from my view, about going over the middle or mixing it up with defensive backs for the ball. Lionel has a combination of good size and speed and will only get better.
Summers, like his Olive Branch running mate Allen Walker (more on him in the linebackers' story), was mentally whipped from his first two seasons where he had been moved from offense to defense and buried in the depth chart. He got a new lease on life when Nutt and company came on board and told him he was the big target they were looking for. Within days, Markeith's body language and approach to football changed – for the better – drastically. He started making big play after big play in practices and also drew the eye of not only his coaches but his quarterbacks. Even though his speed is fine, his strength is his bigger body and out-muscling and out-positioning DBs for the ball. Needless to say, his meteoric leaps were a very pleasant surprise after the results of his first two nondescript seasons.
Even though neither of them beat out the top returning guys, their impact on the position was clear and defined. They gained the trust of the coaches, they gained the trust and respect of their QBs and teammates and, most importantly, they strengthened the wide receiver unit from a three or four-man rotation to a solid five or six-man mix.
While their surfacing was perhaps the biggest event of spring for the wide receivers, the group would not be what it is without the influence and production of the top three guys – Mike Wallace, Dexter McCluster and Shay Hodge.
As was written in yesterday's RB piece, McCluster wowed the coaches and became a do-it-all threat. The staff tapped into his vast arsenal of skills and plan to unveil them all in the fall. There's not much more to say about the dynamic Dexter other than the goal for him in the offseason is to put on a little padding, about 8-10 pounds, so his body can hold up to the demands that will be put on him during the season. He better be ready and fit because the coaches are going to give him ample opportunity to shine.
While Dickerson was aware of Hodge, it wasn't until midway through spring that Shay's ability started to grow on him and Nutt and OC Kent Austin. They started appreciating the little things Shay was capable of to the point of calling him a "major weapon." He was reliable, if not dynamic, in all phases of being a wideout – catching, route running and blocking in the run game. He made his mark and will be rewarded in the spring.
Wallace was the long ball threat in 2007. He still is. With speed to burn and more experience in his route-running, he can be a force. Even though he had an excellent spring, the goal for him in the offseason is to hone in on his lateral movement and coming out of route breaks full speed. Straight ahead, Mike runs a sub 4.3 40. Laterally, he has work to do, but he says S&C Coach Don Decker's stretching routine will help loosen his hips and allow him to maintain his speed laterally. That will be a sight to see if so.
Mike Hicks got passed in spring for roughly 75% of the month-long session by Breaux and Summers. His position as the fourth guy was in jeopardy, but the last week or so of spring training, he raised his game to another level and fought back to even status with the two up-and-comers. Mike dug in and results followed. He has now set himself up to be in the top rotation in the fall, but midway through spring that was looking iffy.
A couple of other players also had solid springs. Senior Jacarious Lucas went from being an afterthought to being a viable option in the rotation. He was the most physical blocker in the group and started making plays on the ball more frequently. Got a "hmmmmm" or two from those watching practice and is definitely a nice insurance policy for the fall.
Richie Contartesi is on the small side, but he has a Wes Welker-ish quality to him. He's very quick, he's fearless in the seams over the middle and he's got excellent hands. He's also bright enough to have a feel for openings in coverage and the courage to set in those holes while awaiting the ball. Don't count him out. Remember Jamie Holder? Very similar games.
Overall, this position is easy to write about. There are few, if any, negatives to dwell on. With experience at the top, players elevating their game throughout the unit and a quarterback who seemingly has confidence and faith in all of them, this could be a very special group for Ole Miss football in 2008.
Wide Receivers -
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