After being essentially dominated for the first seven practices of spring training, the Ole Miss offense showed some signs of life in the form of a little more consistent playmaking in Tuesday's practice.
With Raymond Cotton's arm sore, Nathan Stanley got a lot more reps and got into a nice passing/completion rhythm that helped spark the offense into a pretty solid session.
"I thought we got better as a team and got better offensively," said Co-Offensive Coordinator/OL Coach Mike Markuson, who was filling in with post-practice interviews for Houston Nutt, who had to go to a speaking engagement as soon as practice ended.
"It's always about correcting, taking care of the ball, making a good first step, running a good route, making a good read, running the ball hard and so on and we did more of that today on offense.
"We put a few too many balls on the ground in the middle drill, but we did better in the team drill."
Markuson said it was good to see the offense have some success against the rugged Rebel defense, dominant most of the spring.
"As coaches, we have to help provide and instill some confidence in our kids. Some guys are just naturally quiet and to themselves. The guys doing a good job on a daily basis are recognized," Mike noted. "We're staying positive and we're going to keep working.
"We've preached to our guys not to worry about getting stuffed right now. Forget the last play. Move forward, keep playing. As we have said all spring, it's a process. We'll get there. It's just a fact the defense is ahead of us right now. For the time being, we just have to keep grinding on them, being patient and drilling in their heads to be physical."
On Stanley, Markuson was pleased with the overall workout.
"He threw some really nice balls today. We are putting our quarterbacks into competitive situations of down-and-distance and Nate and all the offense moved the chains and did some good things today," note Markuson.
Mike is as impressed with the Rebel defense as Nutt is.
"They can be really good, outstanding. They are very good up front. They are all strong-legged guys who play with good pad level. They are tough guys to move. They get penetration and play with their pads down. They are also flying around and playing with enthusiasm and a swagger," Markuson said. "That's why we are telling our guys not to get frustrated and to control what we can. Again, just move on to the next play and keep focusing.
"They are at a point where I feel they can be as good as any defense we play, no question. If we, as an offense, can move the ball on them and score some points on them before our first game next fall, we feel we can move it on anyone. We are also excited with how much we feel they will give us the ball. They are playing with a swagger and a confidence we are trying to help the offense gain."
The Rebel staff has not done much team work in special teams. In spring, this staff breaks down things individually and works on individual pieces of the special teams every day before putting it all together in an 11-man setting later in the year.
But Special Teams Coordinator James Shibest has seen enough of the placekicking to make an early evaluation.
"I think Bryson Rose and David Hankins are standing out right now in placements. Of course, we won't know much until they get in a game and kick a field goal, but in practice they have done well," said Shibest. "They have been the most consistent and will probably be one and two going into camp. Andrew Ritter is also working hard to be a dual threat with kickoffs and placements and has shown a lot of improvement."
Rose is in his third year and it's starting to show.
"You can tell he's been here a while and has some confidence. Now, it's his opportunity to be the guy and he's taking advantage of it," Shibest noted. "He's worked hard and it's paying off.
"I've been really happy with him. So far, the kicking operation with a new holder and new snapper has been good in practice," he said.
Rose is happy with his progress.
"I think I learned a lot from Josh (Shene) and at some kicking camps on how to handle the pressure and how to take things one kick at a time," said Rose. "It's gone very well for me so far this spring. I've been able to block everything out and just go out there and kick.
"Coach (Don) Decker has worked hard on getting my hips stronger so I can pick up speed in my leg swing, which has helped my distance. I feel comfortable from 55 yards in and have days where I can kick it 60.
Shibest, who doubles as the tight end coach, also had some good things to say about that position.
"Ferbia Allen has been awesome, really good. And Reggie Hicks is doing a good job for us at the start of his senior year. We are giving him some movement and he's handling it well," James added. "All of them are catching the ball well too. We hope they will progress to the point where they can be a bigger part of the passing game.
"Z. Mason has come a long way, but has a long way to go just like all freshmen. He's got great hands and is making progress. We just have to get him to bend better. You have to be able to bend to be a good blocker and route runner and that's what he has been working hard on."
* From the work-cut-out-for-him department. Every spring is a new chapter and every coach has new challenges to face, but some more than others. This spring, it appears Markuson and CB Coach Chris Vaughn have, drum roll please, their work cut out for them.
Markuson is replacing the whole interior of his OL and at the same time coaching 15-18 guys on a daily basis. Vaughn is not replacing as many starters as Mike (3), but he's replacing all his starters - both corners. He has faith in his available talent, and they have done well so far this spring, but they are unknowns to the world of starting in the SEC.
Both face tough tasks. Welcome to spring training, coach. Next year, it will be another coaches' turn. Thus is the life of a college mentor. (DL Coach Terry Price knows what we're talking about as he looks ahead to 2011.)
* There have been no changes at all in the two-deep depth chart since the start of spring except at the center spot where A.J. Hawkins is now number one over Evan Swindall. When spring started, that role was reversed.
* Former Rebel DL Kendrick Clancy stopped by practice. He says he is announcing his retirement from the NFL after 10 years in the league. He wants to come back to Ole Miss, finish his degree and get into coaching. Knowing Clancy, if he wants it, he will get it. P.S. - Kendrick is married and has five children - four daughters and one son.
* Starting CB Jeremy McGee has to miss practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays due to class. With a banged up ankle and broken hand, it's probably for the better anyway. The benefit is to backup Charles Sawyer, who will be counted on heavily next year and is getting a ton of first-team reps in Jeremy's absence.
* For the first time all spring, SLB Allen Walker participated in all contact drills after waiting to recover from offseason surgery for a sports hernia. On Allen's first play in scrimmage conditions, he met Brandon Bolden in the hole near the line of scrimmage and a loud thud ensued. Welcome back, Allen. Nice hit.
* To add to what Markuson said about Stanley, it was obvious he was on Tuesday. He had more command of the offense, was throwing the ball with authority despite a strong wind, was seeing the whole field and making his reads correctly to find open receivers and he was virtually ignoring any pressure he was under.
From a layman's viewpoint, Stanley's best day of the spring, which is now a little over halfway completed.
* When the defense is controlling things, there's usually a lot of chatter coming from their sidelines. While they certainly had their moments in the team drills at the end of practice, which is 11 on 11, they were a little quieter today as the offense started making more positive yardage plays than the D is used to giving up.
Stanley set the tone for the session when he connected with Markeith Summers for a 40-yard strike and from there it was as if the offense gained some of the confidence and swagger the coaches have been encouraging. Obviously, they still have a long way to go, but to see that initial spark was encouraging. Maybe a fire will break out from that spark.
* The Rebels will be off Wednesday and resume practice Thursday.