Now that two-a-days are over, the preseason plan of Houston Nutt and his staff is obvious.
Anyone with decent vision can readily see the Rebel starters – literally across the board – should be able to match up with anyone on their schedule.
It's true that keeping up with the lineups of other teams is not my cup of tea – keeping up with the Rebels is a fulltime endeavor, but from my perspective, there's not another 22 in the country that I would trade for right now. Some will argue that point with Florida and maybe a couple of more top team's starters, and I realize I am biased because I personally know and like these young men, but based on how they finished last year and how many were returning with a year's experience under their belts, I'll play the Rebel hand and won't look back.
It's like holding a full house in hold ‘em in Tunica. I might get beaten with four of a kind or a royal flush, but I'll take my chances and go all in every single time.
Jevan, Dexter, Baby J, Kentrell, Greg, Marcus, Shay, Brandon, Reid, Daverin, Trahan, Walker, Kendrick, Marshay, J.B., Lawon, Jerrell, et al, roll off the palette smoothly.
Sure, there are questions about the starters – how will Sowell do at LT? Will Brandon Green hold up at RG? Will the secondary show marked improvement over last season? – but the starting situation still lends itself to a full house and a pretty darn good hand.
The Rebel coaches know and trust that our starters are going to be good as well. Thus, the plan.
In two-a-days, the top guys were kept sharp and tuned up, but the backups and newcomers seemed to get the bulk of the work. Certainly, that will change now as the first game approaches, but the early eye was on the identification, development, gaining trust and tutoring of, as Nutt says, "who's next?"
This staff is savvy enough to know they can win a lot of games with their starters, but to get where they really want to go – in that little city in Georgia after the regular season – they realize the starters can't do it alone.
Championship teams have depth. There are few exceptions. As a point of reference, Florida was not sidetracked when they lost Percy Harvin, a first-round draft choice, for a key stretch last year. Championship clubs can put another player in almost as good and keep rolling.
There is no question, with a title being the pot, the depth issue had to be addressed, and addressed strongly, in preseason camp. It was.
What's the pecking order at running back? Even though RB is not an issue from a numbers and talent standpoint, sorting out who does what the best and which situations to put them in has to be worked out and cemented into the coaches' minds. Also, can they trust a freshman, like Tim Simon, with knowing his assignments and ball security? All things that have to be worked out satisfactorily during the preseason. Of course, those issues will constantly be addressed throughout the season, but a starting point had to be determined. The names floating around the most aren't surprises, but their roles are still being defined.
Who will emerge as reliable from the backup offensive linemen? Each day during two-a-days, it seemed the comfort level of the coaches – namely OL Coach Mike Markuson – got a little bit better with Bobby Massie, Mark Jean-Louis, A.J. Hawkins and Rishaw Johnson, but it's still a work in progress and something that has the coaches antsy to see develop. The starting OL from spring has already suffered a setback with disciplinary action against previous number one RG Johnson. Although he will be back before the SEC campaign starts, we have been told, it's been a scramble making sure Brandon Green is ready when the season begins and determining who is next if someone else is derailed on the starting unit.
At tight end, senior Gerald Harris has become an all-around player, but what about the depth there? That quickly came into focus Saturday when Harris popped a hamstring and is out indefinitely. RS freshman Ferbia Allen has not played a down of college football, but he seems to be surfacing as someone the coaches have faith in. Reggie Hicks is a veteran and reliable and E.J. Epperson is good in the run game, but with the Rebs running two and three-tight end sets every once in a while, the options aren't as plentiful as it appears on paper. And heaven forbid if Harris' injury lingers.
At wide receiver, the givens are the two seniors – Dex and Shay, but what do we really know beyond that? Markeith Summers and Lionel Breaux have had their roles expanded quite a bit from last year. Can they adjust from being one of the guys to "the guy" in certain situations? It appears it was determined in two-a-days they can handle the added duty and pressures. Freshman Patrick Patterson is extremely gifted and will play, maybe a lot, but how much does he know yet? More now due to the extra reps the coaches wisely gave him during two-a-days. Jesse Grandy is another promising freshman expected to contribute. Again, no experience, but he was given more reps too to get him ready. Andrew Harris and Jacarious Lucas have some experience and will most likely be situational players again. Many days, Dex and Shay weren't asked to do much. One, why risk them getting injured? Two, more reps to get someone else ready, all part of the plan to build depth.
At fullback, we know Andy Hartman is good at the point of attack, but his backup, Derrick Davis, is a converted tailback who is learning the craft. Davis adds a receiving element to the passing game from the FB position, but he's unproven in leading the way for the Rebel tailbacks. Hence, extra work in two-a-days. Again, the plan came into play and more was learned about Derrick and the next guy, Dan Hoffman, who has shown he can be competent.
At quarterback, a battle for number two continues between RS freshman Nathan Stanley and senior Billy Tapp. Stanley has been given every opportunity to step up and be the guy with extra reps, but the coaches have a lot of faith in Billy to run the offense without pause and without major blunders. Still a work in progress. Nathan has shown flashes, but we're sure QB Coach Kent Austin is looking for more consistency.
On the DL, the depth situation took a hit when Justin Smith was lost for 6-8 weeks – hopefully that's all – with a broken foot, but now the DT rotation will be four instead of five. Let's not get too greedy. In years past, we were lucky to have two good tackles, so the moaning is not too loud about that position. And the addition of Craig Drummond to that spot has potential for some help as the season progresses. P.S. – Let's not have another one get hurt. . . . At DE, a lot of people have been holding their breath about the condition of Greg Hardy's foot. So far, everything is going as expected. Greg has experienced some soreness, but that was anticipated, and the coaches are being smart with his practice use, limiting him to the bare minimum to keep him sharp. The emergence of one Gerald Rivers has also given DL Coach Terry Price another option, in an emergency. The DL looks solid, but we'd be hiding a fact if we didn't say the coaches want to see Rivers and Drummond continue to grow and develop for their peace of mind and added strength of that unit. If you need a reason why, check out last week's results. Kentrell Lockett and Garrett Ryan both went down with stingers in their shoulders and hardy missed a few practices with soreness. Insurance is needed and the premium is Rivers and Drum improving.
Going into two-a-days, depth at linebacker was an issue. A pair of true freshmen have helped alleviate some of that anxiety. Although green, D.T. Shackelford at MLB and Joel Kight on the outside have made a positive impression on DC/Linebackers Coach Tyrone Nix. Dare we say he is comfortable with them? Knowing Nix, he'd say they still have a lot to learn, which would be true, but you can tell he's not as anxious as he was at the start of camp because of the addition of those two. In Saturday's scrimmage, Nix heaped praise on D.T. Nix does not hand that out liberally and without reason.
It was hoped back in the summer that either Tig Barksdale or Jamar Hornsby would give the safety slots immediate help. Neither are available – you know those stories. So now the attention is turned to Fon Ingram and Derrick Herman and who else, we don't know at this point. Fon played some last year and showed he can be productive. Derrick will be an important part of most special teams units, but has to keep working on his open field tackling from the FS slot. A little more help and development is still needed there to make those positions championship caliber, replete with the kind of depth you desire.
Which brings us to cornerback, a unit that struggled a lot last season but got better as the campaign progressed. They have picked up where they left off last fall and are better, and it appears backups Jeremy McGee and Marcus Temple have gained more trust from the staff. Again, lots of reps in the preseason should pay dividends, but nobody would call that a "deep" part of the team.
On special teams, the two new kickers – PK Andrew Ritter and P Tyler Campbell – provide immediate depth to the stable and may end up as starters. Great additions to the team. And Josh Shene and Bryson Rose give the Rebs plenty of reliable ammo for field goals and extra points. Seemingly no issues there. In the return game, tried and true Marshay and Dexter are all you need at PR, but Grandy is being groomed there too as insurance. Kickoff return could go in several directions, but who handles and secures the ball the best is still being determined.
So how did two-a-days help the drive for a title?
The coaches got a ton of information to process and makes decisions from. They came closer to learning all the skill sets of every player and they gained trust in some key backups.
We're not implying everything is resolved. We're not implying the Rebels are suddenly a deep team across the board. But we are saying the depth situation has been vigorously addressed and progress has definitely been made in areas that needed it.
Kudos to the coaches for the plan. It was the only way, in this opinion, to build a championship team and not sit back with their fingers crossed hoping nobody would get hurt.
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