In the past six months, I have written, probably too many times, how I feel the success of the 2008 football team under the guidance of veteran SEC Coach Houston Nutt will depend more on a mental overhaul than a physical/talent one.
Even though I feel that to be true, let's discount that notion for a moment, if it's possible to do so since that is an overriding factor, and concentrate on "talent" as the Rebel newcomers report today and vets report tomorrow.
Disclaimer: Some of this has been written before, so it's more of a reminder than any revelation.
For nearly 30 years of covering the Rebels, I have always believed, and still do, that everything starts up front in the SEC.
The offensive line is the base, the foundation, the engine of the offense. If you don't believe that, try playing football without one, or a poor one. The greatest QBs in the world can't function without protection and the greatest RBs in the world cannot run effectively without holes to scoot through. It's fact.
Ole Miss should not have too many issues up front, but there are a few "ifs.". . . if RT John Jerry has recovered fully from a spring illness that dragged into the summer and is still receiving treatment for. John did work out in the summer and the prognosis is positive, but he's a big piece of the OL puzzle. He has to be "right.". . . if Daverin Geralds/Darryl Harris, whoever ends up as number one there, are better-than-adequate centers. . . if they all are more physical, it will help their cause. OL Coach Mike Markuson didn't feel the OL was playing as dominant as they looked in spring. Their physical play did not match their physical appearance, in other words. "Domination" has been the battle cry all offseason. Let's see if it translates on the field. Certainly, the ability to dominant is in there. It's up to the players and Markuson to get it out.
At running back, we are as inexperienced as we have ever been there, but - overall - we may be as talented as we've ever been too. I can't wait to see Enrique Davis and Brandon Bolden in pads and see the "new and improved" Cordera Eason at work. Potentially, we can be dynamite in the backfield, but you know what is said about potential.
Jason Cook has always been underrated, in my book. The talented fullback may be more visible in the new offense and I say it's about time. I think that kid is a pure football player and we'll see more of that this fall.
The tight ends are also SEC inexperienced, but at least they have some "age" on them. David Traxler is a senior, Gewrald Harris is a JUCO transfer and Reggie Hicks is in his third year. That position may not be spectacular or flashy, but it should be reliable and productive.
I don't know how good the wideouts are going to be with another year under their belts, but they do not, collectively, lack confidence. Talk to them and you'd think we have five All-Americans. With their speed and experience, and their belief in their ability, I'd say the group of Mike Wallace, Shay Hodge, Dexter McCluster, Markeith Summers, Lionel Breaux and newcomer Andrew Harris will present a lot of matchup problems for SEC secondaries. It is also important that signal-caller Jevan Snead has a live enough arm to create a much better vertical game, which will help in some many areas, not the least of which is making the WRs even more effective.
Speaking of Snead, the only QB tool he lacks is having been there, in the SEC wars that is. His decision-making under fire is the only thing that is in question, but when you look at all his other tools - arm, speed, smarts - you have to think that will fall in line as well. But we must all remember, no matter how good he looks trotting on the field from the sidelines, he's still a sophomore. Sophomores generally make a few mistakes. The thing with Snead though, is that I think he's smart enough not to make them twice, which can't be said about a lot of QBs. While I know he won't be perfect, I can't think of one in the SEC I'd trade him for. Sure, Mr. Tebow is outstanding, but I'll take my chances with Jevan. Seriously.
Overall, I have big hopes for the offense. There may be a slight depth issue at OL, so good health is hoped for, but I'll match our first 18 or so up with most anybody, physically. I also have confidence Nutt and Marksuson's run game and OC Kent Austin's pass game will be a deadly combo.
Again, it starts up front.
Again, we should be in good hands with Mr. Jerry, Mr. Hardy, Mr. Tillman, Mr. Powe, Mr. Stephens, Mr. Lockett, Mr. Laurent - when he gets back from minor knee surgery, Mr. Sanders, et al.
If this is not a strength of the Rebel team, I will be extremely shocked and disappointed. No reason for it not to be, from my cheap seat and view.
The focal point will, naturally, be Powe, but it shouldn't be - yet. Hardy, Jerry and Tillman are grizzled vets who have paid their dues and have been sporadically successful in the past. They will be way more consistent, due to experience and DL Coach Tracy Rocker, this fall.
At linebacker, I'm confused why some consider them a weak link. Let these names roll around in your head a minute and get back to me. Cornell, Palmer, Walker, Trahan, Fein, just to name five. I have to believe they can do the job and do it well. Again, I will be surprised if they don't.
I have to admit, I have been concerned about the secondary, but after listening to those brash wideouts talk about how much the secondary guys have improved in the offseason, and challenged them in that time frame, I'm beginning to question my doubts about the cover guys.
I know Marshay Green has the ability and is one of the best competitors on the team. Jamarca Sanford is proven. Dustin Mouzon is proven, despite having a mediocre spring. Cassius Vaughn should be ready. Johnny Brown and Kendrick Lewis should be ready at free safety. Demareo Marr and Jeremy McGee should be knocking on the door for playing time. While they were riddled in spring, I get a sneaky suspicion they will be productive this fall. (Fingers crossed.)
ST Coordinator James Shibest saw sporadic punting, poor kickoffs and pretty good placekicking in spring. Josh Shene will be fine in FG/PATs, but will anyone step up and take over the punting spot with some consistency? Is anyone on campus who can kickoff to the goalline with some hang time consistently? Those questions have to be addressed, as Shibest knows.
One way for the coaches to shore up things is to put frontline players - offensive and defensive starters - on the coverage and return units. Nutt and Shibest have vowed to do that. That can hedge their bet on the special teams a little, but in the end it will come back to kicking the ball.
Here's hoping Messers Rob Parks, Justin Sparks and Bryan Powers, and kickoff specialist Bryson Rose, are up to the task. The hidden yardage we gave up last year was nearly unbearable. That can't happen again is we are going to be a highly-successful team.
I have to go back to the mental aspects of football. If this team believes and learns how to win when adversity hits, which they haven't been able to do in the past, I think the ability is there - overall - for the Rebs to win more than they lose and maybe even beyond the bare minimums of a "winning" season.
Early season momentum will be critical. The best way to build confidence and belief is with success.
Coach Nutt talks all the time about the team having "one heartbeat." They had 120 last year and the two years prior, all beating separately.
If he can change that mentality, I think it's apparent the Rebels have enough pure athletic ability to win.
Can't wait for it to get started.
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