Running Backs -

Part III of an 11-part series discussing spring training with the assistant coaches. These stories ran in the Grove Bowl issue of The Ole Miss Spirit, which acted as the game program. Next up, the running backs.

While quality depth may be a concern at some positions, Running Backs Coach Derrick Nix does not face that issue. If anything, he's got a dilemma on his hands about how to distribute playing time.

Considering there is only one tailback position and he has a choice of six players, including part timer Dexter McCluster, who brings a wild card quality to the position, Nix has his hands full.

Not only that, but the difference between number one and number six does not seem to be that significant, when you listen to D-Nix.

"They've all been solid," Nix said. "They've all done some real good things."

Starting at the top and working down, excluding McCluster, who will be highlighted with the wide receivers despite a virtual guarantee of quality tailback reps next season, Nix went straight to sophomore Brandon Bolden and senior Cordera Eason.

"Brandon has gained some explosiveness and understands the offense a lot better. Cordera is right there with him. Both of them lost some weight during the offseason and it's helped their movement and quickness. Both are more explosive this spring," Nix stated.

Next up are sophomores Devin Thomas and Enrique Davis.

"Devin has come on strong this spring. He's fully recovered from his high school ankle injury and has shown flashes of being a real good back for us," Nix said. "Enrique has improved his lateral movement and has always been a hard runner. The game is starting to slow down for him a little bit and that will help his production. With his size and speed, he will be a force to be reckoned with."

Walkon freshman Andre Sterling has also gained Derrick's attention this spring.

"Andre has been a surprise to me," Derrick noted. "He is showing a lot of natural ability at tailback even though he has only been in this offense three or four weeks. He can read blocks and set blocks up, making people miss. He just needs to protect the ball better."

Nix has had to be very organized in spring training in terms of how he hands out reps.

"I think they are getting enough. I didn't give as many to Brandon and Cordera because they don't need as many because of their experience and understanding of the offense and the position. Enrique falls into that category too somewhat," Nix explained. "I tried to get Devin, Andre and sometimes Enrique more reps because we need more evaluation of them.

"I know what Brandon and Cordera can do. All I stressed to them in spring was to make their reps count when they are in there. We wanted to give the other guys more of a shot in spring. We are keeping the competition level high and keeping all our guys fresh."

At fullback, Nix is not as fortunate and deep.

Senior Andy Hartmann and junior Derrick Davis, a beefed up, converted tailback, are the main guys.

"Andy had a real good spring, but I have told him I need him to become more effective in the passing game in terms of being able to catch some passes and get some yardage out of the backfield. He's improved in that area, but we need more," surmised Nix. "Derrick put on 10-12 pounds and is making a good transition and is embracing the position. Sometimes tailbacks think going to fullback is a downgrade, but he's accepted that and will help us next year. It is vital he does."

Daniel Hoffman is next, followed by Ben Benedetto and H.R. Greer.

"Daniel tore his ACL last spring. He was showing promise then. Now he's back. The thing I like about him is that he will go attack a defender. He lowers his head and tries to make a hole for the RB every single time. Tremendous effort kid who is on the heels of the top two," Nix allowed. "Ben is doing fine, but he needs to keep his feet moving in the hole and be a little more versatile.

"H.R. got plenty of reps in spring and got better. He works hard, but we're still trying to get him to play with more leverage and not get discouraged when something goes wrong. He'll get it right with the effort he gives."

Walkon Colby Landers is also in the mix.

"I like his effort, but he hasn't been able to jump the others yet," said Nix. "One thing I know for sure, he'll keep trying to and I like that."

Overview: Better. Bolden is better. Eason is better. Enrique is better. Devin is certainly better. Spring was good to all of them. When you throw Dex in that mix, it's hard to imagine how it could get much more promising. With Hartmann leading the way, and Derrick waiting in the wings to add some versatility to the fullback position, it appears the Rebel backfield is poised to be one of the strengths of the 2009 team. Distributing the ball will take some wise decision-making on the part of Nix, but there will be no petty jealousy because all of them have good chemistry and encourage each other. Beautiful setup. Perhaps the surprise of spring training was the coming out party, so to speak, of Thomas. In all honesty, it was thought prior to spring he would not be able to overtake any of the three in front of him, but based on spring training results, Devin has put himself in the mix and muddied the waters even more in terms of ball distribution, which can be a good thing if handled properly. Coaches say competition brings out the best in everyone. If true, the running backs at Ole Miss should be very good.


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