(Part II of a quick position-by-position look at spring football training.)
There's been a lot made of the Rebels having to replace three offensive linemen, Dexter McCluster, Shay Hodge, Jevan Snead, et al, and rightfully so. They were important cogs in the Ole Miss football machine.
But not a lot has been mentioned about the impending task Tight Ends Coach James Shibest faces in replacing Gerald Harris, a stalwart blocker in the Rebel run game despite never really establishing himself as a major threat in the passing game.
Two years ago, Houston Nutt's staff signed a pair of promising young tight ends in E.J. Epperson and Ferbia Allen, who both redshirted in 2008.
Since then, Ferbia - despite needing more size and strength - worked himself into the rotation and got a lot of action throughout the 2009 campaign, including a few starts when Harris was sidelined with a popped hamstring. Conversely, E.J. was moved midway through the 2009 campaign to fullback with the thought of the coaches being that he would be the heir to senior Andy Hartmann.
Without Harris and Epperson, if the FB move holds, the Rebel tight ends will enter spring a little thin and a little young.
The coaches tried to shore that situation up during junior college recruiting, but the major target - Brandon Mosley - opted for Auburn over the Rebs.
That leaves Shibest with four viable candidates - Allen, senior Reggie Hicks, redshirt frosh Z. Mason and journeyman walk-on Layton Jones, a converted quarterback who will also be entering his senior season.
Although only 230-235 pounds during the '09 season, Allen impressed Shibest on several fronts.
"There is no question Ferbia is our best receiving tight end and he's a smart, tough kid who doesn't mind mixing it up. Ferbia is a bad match for linebackers in coverage. He can stretch the field and has excellent hands," said Shibest. "We just need him to gain some weight and strength to be effective as the main guy."
Ferbia's goal is 250 pounds by next August. He feels he can reach that goal with his 6-4 frame.
"The offseason will be big for me," said Allen during Cotton Bowl practices. "I feel I will reach my goal of 250-255 and that it will really help me in the run game, but I know it will take a lot of hard work and discipline to reach that.
"I've put on about 15-20 good pounds since I have been here and need 15-20 more."
In the able hands of Strength & Conditioning Coach Don Decker, Ferbia should be able to help himself immensely and become the physical presence the Rebel offense needs out of the tight end, but where from there?
Certainly Hicks has the most experience and has made plays in his career on special teams and in certain TE situations, but he needs to make his final season more dynamic with his contributions, more consistent in his performance. A big offseason is also a must for him to make the move needed.
"Reggie could be a movement guy, playing fullback and tight end," said Shibest. "We are thin at FB and TE so he and E.J. could do both some."
The wild card at tight end in spring will be Mason. At 6-5, 270, Z. has successfully worked hard to keep his weight in that range. He has exhibited good hands and provides a big target, but he's had to go through a excruciating battery of stretching exercises since his arrival to help his flexibility.
"If we can get Z. to bend better, which will help his explosion and movement, he's got the other tools necessary to play the position. He's already pretty strong. The main area he needs to keep working on is his flexibility and knowledge of the system," Shibest allowed. "He knows all that."
The spring questions are simple.
Will Ferbia put on the extra weight necessary to make him a complete tight end?
Will Hicks up his game to starter status?
Will Mason gain more flexibility which will enable him to play the position more effectively?
Will Jones come out of the back of the pack to secure some playing time in his final campaign?
Will Epperson stay at fullback? E.J. could be a movement guy - FB and TE.
Will the coaches move someone with a tight end body type during the spring?
Answering most of those questions will be crucial in spring, as crucial as any position on the team.
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