Spring Training, Day IX

The Rebel offense took another step forward as spring training resumed Thursday afternoon. Coach Houston Nutt liked the enthusiasm displayed in the ninth practice of spring. Read about it inside.

There is no substitute for enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm is a sign of passion and enthused, passionate people are usually the successful ones in life.

Ole Miss Coach Houston Nutt was fired up after Thursday's practice because of a) the enthusiasm his team is playing with and b) for the second day in a row, the Reb offense took a positive step forward.

"Enthusiasm is the way you get better," said Nutt. "We've got that going for us right now. The defense has set the tone for the spring, but our offense has made two big steps forward the last two practices."

As is always the case with football on this level, Nutt started with the guys up front, the OL.

"Our offensive line has gotten better here lately. A.J. Hawkins has really come on and that helps us at center. He's a year older than Evan (Swindall), a little bigger, a little stronger.

Bradley Sowell

"Evan is still coming, but with A.J., Rishaw, Bobby, Bradley and Tank (Alex Washington) up front, we are doing some better things right now. We have to keep coming, but we are better," Houston assessed.

The improvement up front has given QB Nathan Stanley more time to operate and he's taking advantage of that and Raymond Cotton not being able to throw right now due to a sore arm.

"Nathan is really doing a nice job right now. Raymond has a sore arm - he shouldn't have a sore arm eight practices into spring training. He needed to throw more getting ready for spring," Nutt noted. "Nathan is getting a lot more reps now and making the most of it. His decision-making is coming around.

Nathan Stanley

"He's making good choices and good checks. I am very excited about his progress. He's separated himself by default for now because you can't make it in the tub (training room). You have to be out here."

Once again, S Damien Jackson riled up the troops with another big hit, this one on RB Derrick Herman that could have been heard from the practice fields to the Lyceum.

"Damien was the MVP today. He strikes people. He comes in there meaning business. Usually you don't know how a new player will adapt, but this guy acts as if he's been in our playbook for a while and is just putting picture-perfect fundamental hits on people. I had not idea he was this good. I was told by Coach Campbell he was, but until you see it, you don't know. He is," said Nutt.

Nutt is constantly looking for playmakers on offense, especially with the loss of the top ones from a year ago. Who's emerging?

"Markeith Summers has his best day as a Rebel today. Melvin Harris has made some big catches, but he has to be more consistent," Houston began. "Jesse Grandy and Ja'Mes Logan have been outstanding, we have to get them the ball, and Jared Mitchell looks like he is going to help us - he's working hard and making plays."

One gaping hole from last year that has to be filled is at fullback where E.J. Epperson is the top candidate right now.

"E.J. has been valuable because he's playing fullback, H-back, motion guy for us. He's a solid blocker and is catching the ball better. He also understands what we want," Nutt stated.

Two players that have Damien Jackson breathing down their necks are SS Johnny Brown and FS Fon Ingram.

Damien Jackson

"Damien is excellent. He is learning quickly and he wants to learn. He also gives it up every day," said Brown. "He's one of the hardest hitters on this team and he's pushing us a great deal, but that's good. We'll all get better because of it.

"I'm playing faster this spring. Coach (Tyrone) Nix is giving us some freedom because we know the defense and that has helped me play faster."

Johnny is pleased with the way the cornerbacks, who flank him, are progressing.

"We have some guys at corner who are going to do a fine job. I have a lot of faith in Jeremy McGee and Marcus Temple and Charles Sawyer is coming on strong."

Ingram is not having the kind of spring he dreamed about, but Fon has always been his own biggest critic.

"Damien is making us work. He's a great addition to our team," said Ingram. "I'm not doing as good as I am supposed to, or I feel that way. I feel more responsibility and pressure now and I have to get used to that."

Everyone in the secondary is happy with the way the defensive line is taking some pressure off them.

"They are really doing their jobs. Everyone sees it - they are coming out here to eat every day," Fon closed. "They are going to be alright."

Random Notes:

* The Rebels did some fundamental, individual drills in kickoff coverage for the first time Thursday. Some of the main candidates are Charles Sawyer, Lionel Breaux, Ryan Campbell, Marcus Temple, Fon Ingram, Johnny Brown, Damien Jackson, Frank Crawford, Jeremy McGee and Derrick Herman. All speed guys who are also physical, which is what the coaches want in KOR players.

* The Rebels under Houston Nutt and Special Teams Coordinator James Shibest have been pretty good on special teams the last two years. You might ask, why? A glimpse at practice will tell you a big part of the story. One, Nutt gives his coaches real time to teach special teams, not a three-minute, let's-get-this-out-of-the-way period. It's more like 10 minutes and they work a different phase of special teams every day. Two, they don't just run 11 guys out there as a unit and have a fire drill.

Houston Nutt

Their special teams instruction is broken down into individual assignments before the entire unit is ever put on the field together. Three, the coaches have passion for special teams and that creates passion for the players about special teams. It's a formula that has worked in the past for Nutt's teams and it's a formula that will continue to work for Nutt's Rebels.

* It was pretty exciting to watch the scrimmage-like periods in practice Thursday. There was much more give and take between the offense and the defense than there has been. Here's a brief play-by-play of team drills to illustrate. . . Joel Kight stops Brandon Bolden for a 1-yard gain. . . . Bolden then picks up 12 yards around end. . . Jerrell Powe stymies Rodney Scott for no gain. . . Nathan Stanley finds Markeith Summers for 18 yards. . . Charles Sawyer defends a short pass for an incompletion. . . Korvic Neat leaves Kight standing with a great move that froze Joel and produced a 6-yard run. . . Jonathan Cornell tackles Scott for a one-yard loss. . . Stanley finds Summers again for 10 yards. . . and so it went. The offense making a play, the defense answering. That's what coaches like - some balance.

* Kight is having a very good spring for a first-year starter and a first-year player. He's extremely quick for a linebacker, he's intuitive and smart and, as a 400-pound bench presser who plays with good pad level, he's physical. If you were worried about losing Patrick Trahan, your reasons are disappearing quickly as Kight gets better and better on a daily basis.

* While Nutt made mention of it, the hit by Jackson on Herman is now number one on the spring list of big collisions. Herman had a lane to run through, it looked like, but in comes a bullet in a bad mood - Jackson. The hit bent Herman backwards and basically left him limp for a brief second. The defensive players erupted onto the field, led by Nix. That's how you play the game.

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