Overview – In his inaugural season as Ole Miss head football coach Houston Nutt was presented with many challenges in personnel as the 2008 season approached.
The Rebels weren't lacking in talent, but there were various areas of spotty depth. Alterations were sure to take place, with Nutt and defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix first citing focus on an Ole Miss defense that had been inconsistent in previous seasons.
Thus, position changes and depth chart restructuring took place. But no unit experienced a greater transformation than the Rebel secondary.
Wide receiver Marshay Green and running back Jeremy McGee were the first to alter roles, as each was moved to cornerback in spring drills. While Green was new to the position, McGee had previous experience at former school UCLA.
The pair joined starters Dustin Mouzon and Cassius Vaughn, along with Kendrick Lewis at free safety and Jamarca Sanford at strong safety, to form a revamped defensive backfield in desperate need of bodies.
The moves seemed to pay off, as the unit grew stronger as the year progressed. Green eventually became a starter at one corner slot, with McGee playing an important role in nickel packages. Freshman Marcus Temple also aided, as well as Johnny Brown at both safety slots.
Green finished the year ranked 10th on the team in tackles (32) and third in interceptions (2). An interception returned for a touchdown in the 73rd Cotton Bowl Classic capped off his season, earning the senior Defensive MVP honors for the game.
Despite struggling at times last season, senior Cassius Vaughn became an integral part of the Ole Miss defense, finishing second on the team in interceptions (3). The talented corner started nine of 13 games for the Rebels, while compiling 43 tackles for seventh on the final chart. He proved strong in man coverage, but also got better against the run throughout the season's duration.
After an up-and-down campaign in 2007, Lewis became a force during a 9-4 run to Dallas, leading Ole Miss in tackles with 85 on the year. While losing Sanford (who added 82 tackles last season) certainly hurts, the emergence of Lewis should help alleviate the damage. The senior was easily one of the better Rebels in coverage, as he led the team in interceptions (4) and tied for first in pass breakups (6).
Brown played mostly free safety last season while backing up Lewis, but does have experience at strong safety from his previous seasons in Red and Blue. If need be, the junior can slide into the spot vacated by Sanford and be effective in the role, which is the likely spring move the coaches will make. While he's not as solid against the run as Sanford, he did finish the season with 28 tackles along with a forced fumble.
A player to watch with spring approaching is Fon Ingram. The soon-to-be-junior split time at corner and strong safety last season, but proved effective in either spot. He finished the season with 16 tackles and an interception, but rid himself of inconsistency towards the end of last year. Ingram did back up Sanford, but evolved into a serviceable corner that is strong against the run. It will be interesting to see whether he remains at strong safety or continues in a hybrid role in 2009.
Returning Starters: CB Marshay Green, CB Cassius Vaughn, FS Kendrick Lewis
Other Key Returnees: S Johnny Brown, CB Marcus Temple, CB Jeremy McGee, S Fon Ingram, CB Derrick Herman
Key Signees: CB Charles Sawyer, CB Ryan Campbell, S Darius "Tig" Barksdale, S Artice Kellam, S Frank Crawford, S Jamar Hornsby, S Dele Junaid
Key Losses: SS Jamarca Sanford
Quotable - Senior Marshay Green
On being a senior leader:
"The seniors on the team have a duty to lead by example and vocally. We had great leaders last year in Peria Jerry and Jamarca Sanford. We want to continue the trend they started. I'm naturally vocal, so that part of it is easy for me, but I want to lead in other ways too. I want to help lead the team in the classroom and in drills and any way I can. Talking is fine, but there needs to be a point to your message."
On his comfort level at cornerback:
"At the first of the season, I didn't have a clue what I was doing at cornerback because I had only been playing the position since spring. It's hard to lead or be very vocal when you are that uncertain about your own job. Now, going into my second year (at cornerback), I feel like I know what I'm doing and I feel like I am playing more instinctively. With that kind of behind me, I can focus a little more on my team and my teammates and help by being a leader."
On his adjustment to a new position last season:
"It was very tough, more than anyone can imagine, but I'm not the type who is going to complain or pout about it. All I did was do what Coach (Chris) Vaughn told me to do as hard as I could go and see where that took me."
On if he ever questioned himself after the move:
"I never questioned myself. I was frustrated and disappointed at times, but I knew I'd get it sooner or later if I kept plugging at it. Coach Vaughn told me giving up some plays as I was learning was all part of it. He encouraged me to keep going hard and everything would work out in the long run. He was right."
On the turning point of his play:
"We gave up a few big plays at the end of (the Arkansas) game, but we won and I could tell I was getting more and more comfortable with cornerback. I was more consistent and more confident and I just built on that. I felt I got better and the whole secondary got better from that point on in the season."
On the team's mindset this season:
"For the returning players off that team, we want to remember the feeling of winning, but last year is last year. For us to get where we want to go in 2009, we have to put last year behind us and stay focused on what's ahead of us. I just want to stay focused and make sure everyone around me is focused on the task at hand, not on what we did in the past."
On the team's goals for 2009:
"We all feel we have a tremendous opportunity in front of us if we take care of our business. We all understand it will be hard, real hard, to duplicate or better last year's results, so we all understand what we have to do to get there and one of the main things is to not look back. You want to reach back for that winning feeling, but beyond that everything is in front of us."
On the current crop of cornerbacks and helping the incoming freshmen:
"Marcus was a freshman last year who made some big plays for us and wants to play more. Jeremy was like me - playing corner for the first time last year - and he kept getting better and better as the year progressed. I think we will be strong at corner next year. We also have some good freshmen coming in. We will teach them everything they need to know after they get here and go from there."
On the Rebel defense for next season:
"We have a lot of starters coming back from last year and we have all been in the system a year. It's all mental now. We just have to perfect and stay consistent and I think we can be one of the top defenses in the SEC and in the nation."
Final Analysis – Once thought of as a weakness, the Rebel secondary became a pivotal component in Ole Miss' fateful Cotton Bowl run last season, helping defeat a pass-happy Texas Tech squad 47-34.
The backfield's improved play was aided by immense pressure from a dominant defensive line, but their contributions cannot be discredited. Against Texas Tech, Graham Harrell did account for 364 passing yards, but on 58 attempts with two interceptions. That performance, parlayed with better efforts in SEC contests, should only bode well for the secondary's confidence as spring approaches on March 27th.
While he became more dependable in the latter stages of the season, Green will benefit from added time in the spring to improve in man coverage. At 5-foot-9, 170 pounds, he's a bit undersized for the position, but plays bigger than his measurements indicate. He's a ferocious competitor who is known to pull the best out of his teammates when needed. As a leader for the Rebel defense, expect big things from Green both in April and in the fall.
Vaughn came on strong last season, after struggling with consistency to start. He got better against the run, but also garnered improvement in coverage – considered a stronger suit for Vaughn by many. If his development continues, he could become the best cover corner the Rebels have to offer.
As one of the more athletic players on the Rebel roster, Lewis added much-needed strength before last offseason, and has continued to build on his frame since 2008 ended. No one questioned his ability in coverage – he's been rather reliable since moving from receiver two years ago – but he had battled proper tackling over the years. He improved during the year, and actually proved to be one of the more reliable tackling stalwarts in the bunch. Look for Lewis to receive All-Conference consideration in the preseason and to play above that level in the fall.
The biggest story line for the secondary will be who replaces four-year starter Jamarca Sanford at strong safety. While the coaching staff has options with returning players and an influx of talent via a deep recruiting class, matching his production will certainly be difficult.
Brown and Ingram will get the first look, but this race won't be decided until August. Still, the spring provides a decent barometer, with one of the two needed to step-in and grab the spot.
Spring Preview: Secondary
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