Heading into spring training, it was widely thought the Ole Miss linebackers could end up being one of the weak links of the 2008 football team.
By the end of spring, that thinking was slowly changing thanks to the emergence of three or four players who were not expected to make an impact on the squad, but made solid spring impressions.
One of the biggest surprises of spring was sophomore Allen Walker, who has had a frustrating career to this point. One of the top safety prospects in the country, the Olive Branch product was moved to linebacker during his redshirt campaign and appeared to be floundering. Some of that was a lack of focus and some immature actions on his part. Some of it was a consensus by the last staff that he simply was not ready and needed to grow up some.
During spring, Walker got a new lease on his football life and made the most of it. He surfaced as the most consistent of all the linebackers, said DC and LB Coach Tyrone Nix. While his athleticism was never in question, his physicality was. No more. Walker mixed it up with the big boys and came out of the other end of the tunnel as an extremely strong candidate to be a starter in the three-man LB corps.
Unfortunately, it appears he still has some maturing to do. Right after spring training, Allen was charged with a DUI. New Coach Houston Nutt saw Allen had no previous legal issues and opted to let him "pay a price" with extra running and other chores to remain on the team. Hopefully, he has seen the light and will adhere to team rules from this point on. From a talent standpoint, the team needs him based on his spring performance.
Sophomore Jonathan Cornell wasn't certain if he would be allowed to go through spring training or not after sustaining a season-ending neck/shoulder injury early last year. After months of rehab, it was decided he could participate and he won the middle LB job in the process in spring. The best way to describe his spring outing would be "steady." He did not make a lot of spectacular plays, but he didn't give up many either as he tried to knock the rust off of his game due to his six-month rehab hiatus.
Returning starter Ashlee Palmer, now healthy after being banged up most of last year, took a while to adjust to Nix and the new system, but he also started catching on by the end of spring. Ashlee's lack of production early in spring was not a reason for concern. It was/is only a matter of time before he catches on and his playmaking ability begins to surface in bigger doses.
Another player who rose from the ashes was senior Chris Bowers. After three injury-plagued years it appeared he would hang up his cleats before the coaching change and bypass his senior season with a degree in hand. But when Houston Nutt came on board, Chris had a change of heart. Healthy for the first time in a couple of years, Chris was given a try at middle linebacker, where he had a positive spring showing. While his lack of LB experience showed at times, Nix was high on Bowers being a contributor next season. If so, that's an unexpected bonus from pre-spring thoughts.
Lamar Brumfield, like most junior college transfers, took a year to "get it." Now that he's been around the block once, his natural athleticism and linebacker skills are starting to flourish. It appears the new system is more reliant on speed than "muscle" and that is right in the wheelhouse of Lamar's ability. He moves well and is starting to learn to be more physical within his assignments.
Young Scottie Williams has the necessary tools to be a good linebacker on this level, but he reminds one of Walker the last couple of years – talented, but unbridled. Being more consistent is his issue, but he played well enough to catch Nix's eye in spring training.
The enigma of spring was MLB Tony Fein, who finished last season with a string of double-digit tackling efforts, but simply did not have a productive spring. Taming Tony's playing style to fit into the system was the goal, but that never transpired during spring until near the end. As spring wore down, those in attendance at practice noticed Tony making more plays and drawing more kudos from Nix, but his spring fate was already sealed. The hope is that he can channel his ability and focus on playing within the scheme more when August rolls around. He showed he can make a lot of plays last year, but Nix and the defense need him to play more under control and be in the proper position more often to trust putting him in the lineup.
The big question mark concerns a player who was not even here in spring, signee Patrick Trahan out of Northwest CC. Will the former Auburn standout be eligible when August rolls around? Nobody knows yet, but there's no question he could be a vital key to the overall health and welfare of the linebacking unit and defense.
Overall, thanks to Cornell's comeback and Walker's rise from obscurity, the LBs showed they can be a competent, if not better, group in fall provided they stay on the same path they were on in spring and continue progressing.
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