By simply looking at the final numbers, one would think the Ole Miss secondary was an area of concern entering 2009.
While the Rebel defense ranked second in the SEC against the run a year ago, the pass defense finished in the cellar, with an overall average of 221.7 yards per game surrendered through the air. The secondary allowed over 260 passing yards in four of Ole Miss' first seven games, including two 300-plus outings against Florida and South Carolina.
However, the midway point of the season saw a drastic turn for the unit. As Ole Miss reeled off six-straight wins to end the season, a secondary short on experience began to take form.
"I think if you look at the last five games, we improved a lot," Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said. "The numbers we gave up early skewed the overall numbers. Without question, I think we'll be better. I think they started off unsure and lacked confidence. As they built on some success, they got more confident and started having even more success."
Over those final six games, the secondary allowed an average of 215.0 yards per game. Senior Marshay Green and company stifled opposing wideouts, including a shutdown effort against Texas Tech star Michael Crabtree in the 73rd Annual Cotton Bowl Classic.
"If you had told us we were opening last season with Texas Tech, we might have forfeited," Nutt said. "But we got better, enough so that we did a nice job against Tech in the last game of the season. I think we will be even better this year back there."
The Red Raiders totaled 364 passing yards in a 47-34 Rebel win, but Crabtree netted a mere four catches for 30 yards. Two Graham Harrell interceptions led to scores for Ole Miss, including a 65-yard robbery by Green returned for a touchdown.
"Honestly, that first part of September and on into October, I didn't have a clue what I was doing," said Green, who struggled early in the transition to a new position after being moved from wide receiver in spring drills.
"I was just out there playing off excitement and raw athletic ability. But later into the season, I started to learn offensive sets and formations and got a better feel for it. It's night and day now."
Senior Cassius Vaughn, who also notched an interception in the Cotton Bowl, believes the unit can carry last season's late momentum into 2009.
"It's confidence. We're more experienced, we've gelled together since last year and a lot of stuff we didn't know last year, we know now," he said. "We're a family. We're all together.
"I never knew we were last in pass defense. That's a shocker to me. The things we accomplished last year a lot of teams who were first or second couldn't have done. We're just taking it step-by-step and are looking to be better this year. As long as we keep getting wins, I don't think anyone in Oxford is going to complain."
The life of a cornerback in the SEC is a bit lonely.
Not only does a player have to possess superior athleticism, but also an unmatched competitive fire and short-term memory, as being left on an island against a Julio Jones or A.J. Green can prove difficult.
As a veteran to the position, Vaughn says the mental aspect of cornerback plays a major role in having success.
"Cornerback is 92 percent mental," Vaughn said. "But you also have to be instinctive, know your technique and trust your teammates. You have to be the whole package – a good athlete and smart back there."
But now having a year of experience and a strong finish under the belt, confidence couldn't be any higher for the Rebel cornerbacks.
"For the most part, I have been pleased so far," cornerbacks coach Chris Vaughn said of the unit's fall progress. "We always want to do better, but we are a lot better now than we were a year ago because of experience. Now, we have to take it to the field in the games.
"They have more confidence now because they understand what they're doing. They have a plan they understand now and aren't in no-man's land anymore. We want our guys to be confident, but not cocky. The minute you think you've got that position mastered and let off a little, that's the minute you get burned. We have to keep working - that's the whole key. Come to work every day and work on your craft."
For Green, self-assurance has never been an issue.
The 5-foot-9, 170 pounder has become known for a little trash talk during practices, jawing back and forth with his offensive counterparts almost incessantly.
However, as the Defensive MVP of the Cotton Bowl, Green can talk a little more.
"Anytime we're out here, we're out here to have fun. We're out here keeping it fun and swarm to the ball. We're landsharks," he said. "It's my second year and I'm more comfortable. Anytime you're more comfortable, you can talk and play faster. So now I'm just playing more freely. Kendrick (Lewis) is coming along, Cassius, (Marcus) Temp(le), (Jeremy) McGee – all of us. We're just having fun out there."
Unlike this time last year, the cornerbacks enter the season opener against Memphis without uncertainty.
While lacking in the depth department, the unit is mostly worry-free. But don't tell Green their much-improved.
"We just have to keep coming out here and work every day at practice," he said. "We have to keep working on our craft. There's hype now. I don't care. People are saying we're good, but I guarantee you, one game can change that. So basically, we're just going to keep working."
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