Ole Miss Coach Houston Nutt had no illusions as spring training approached in mid-March.
He knew, as did most knowledgeable observers of Rebel football, what the score was heading into the critical 15-practice session.
To wit, the defense – led by Tyrone Nix and his able staff – should be pretty salty due to the experienced players returning, the youthful players figuring to turn the proverbial corner into being veterans and the overall ability level of the group as a whole.
Through the entire spring training session, they did not disappoint.
The front seven was nothing short of terrific for most of spring. Spurred on by taskmasters and motivators Nix and DL Coach Terry Price, those guys, as they said, "came to eat" every day with very few lapses. They, indeed, played as if they were hungry.
If you've never seen Nix and Price coach a practice session, let me clue you in. The players really have no other choice but to perform at a high level. Tyrone, who played with as much passion as anyone when he was a middle linebacker at Southern Mississippi, coaches the same way. Every snap is as close to life and death as football can get. Price has the same traits and characteristics.
But in order to receive coaching, hard coaching, you have to be willing to take it. To a man, the Rebel defensive players on the front seven get it. They are self-motivated to be good and they want to be, well, reminded when they aren't. Nix and Price will certainly oblige in that department.
It's a pretty cool chemistry. The players are like lab puppies, eager to please and waiting on feedback – good or bad – from their mentors. They know Nix and Price only want them to be the best they can be and are even handed in their approval/disapproval. They take the constructive criticism well and receive the pats on the back and compliments with gratitude.
It's the way the relationships between coaches and players should be. And it's a healthy attitude in both directions.
It also helps the talent on the defensive front rolls off the tongue easily – Jerrell Powe, Kentrell Lockett, Ted Laurent, Lawon Scott, Jonathan Cornell, Allen Walker, Joel Kight, D.T. Shackelford. That's smooth, brothers and sisters, smooth. Add to that a dynamic newcomer in DE Wayne Dorsey and you can see the excitement factor is warranted.
On the back end of the defense, there were more concerns with that foursome from a year ago being three-fourths graduated. Only SS Johnny Brown returned as a starter.
But CB Coach Chris Vaughn, a dynamo who stresses competing as much as he does technique, and Safeties Coach Kim Dameron, a terrific teacher of secondary concepts and coverage schemes, didn't exactly have a bare cupboard.
FS Fon Ingram, CB Marcus Temple and CB Jeremy McGee have been nicely groomed for when this day arrived, with no Marshay Green or Kendrick Lewis or Cassius Vaughn in sight. They are, in simple terms, rookies who aren't rookies.
When you throw in the mix JUCO transfer S Damien Jackson and a superb young corner in Charles Sawyer, the concerns diminish. It also helps that the play, and pressure, of the front allows the secondary guys to clean things up quickly on the back end.
As always, staying healthy is an important factor, but that aside, the 2010 Rebel defense should be a very good unit, capable of holding down every team on the schedule if they perform to their potential.
On the other side of the ball, things are not quite as stable.
The bad news is a lot of stalwarts are gone from the past two Cotton Bowl years. Some – for instance Dexter McCluster and John Jerry – seem irreplaceable.
The good news is the guys stepping up to take over showed a lot of improvement over the last half of spring training after getting drubbed by the defense the first few practices.
Sure, there were growing pains and frustrations while they were getting hammered, but they kept getting off the mat and slowly but surely they started to make a play here and a play there, inching ever so slowly toward competitiveness with their practice foes.
Finally, in the end, they were making the defense work extremely hard to stop them. No, the offense is not nearly consistent enough. There is plenty of work remaining to be done. They are not nearly a finished product, but they showed potential and they showed a willingness to take their lumps while they learned knowing that soon their day would come.
You have to like their resilience. Like an old Timex watch commercial, they took a licking and kept on ticking.
The three new starters on the offensive line took some time to get on the same page as a unit and they got tired of getting kicked around. By the end of spring, some of that had changed and some swagger started to emerge. Not enough for the season, mind you, but enough to go into August with some momentum to finish correcting and developing.
OL Coach Mike Markuson was patient, but demanding and he stressed playing with confidence and not taking any abuse without a fight. The OL started listening and responding little by little.
When they started clicking a little, the backs started seeing daylight and took advantage of it. In the second scrimmage of spring, every back in the mix for playing time had at least one really good run.
And Quarterback Nathan Stanley, who appears to be the guy at this writing, started moving his team more frequently. Nathan's poise, huddle command, decision-making, protection of the ball and knowledge of the offense seemed to get better on a daily basis, especially toward the end of spring. The slow, steady and, most importantly patient, hand of new QB Coach Dave Rader was certainly a major factor in Stanley's progress. Rader sensed he had to bite his tongue a bit at times to allow his young quarterbacks a chance to mature and they did.
The wideouts were also beneficiaries of the OL improvement and part of the reason for the late offensive surge. Markeith Summers finally got close to 100% after offseason surgery, Jesse Grandy is developing into a dynamic performer, Lionel Breaux is versatile and steady, Ja'Mes Logan is a smooth athlete with a hunger to be good and Melvin Harris and Jared Mitchell made enough plays to stay in the picture.
What did not emerge in spring training was what coaches call a difference-maker. For lack of a better reference point, a Dexter.
But that's where coaching comes in. We've watched Houston and his offensive staff long enough, even before they were at Ole Miss, to know they are very good at taking players who may not be the total package and utilizing their strengths to make a whole.
The RBs are a prime example. There are some very good football players at that position, but maybe not any "great" ones. The flip side is that they all seem to do something very, very well and they have a coaching staff that recognizes those qualities and will take advantage of what they can do. With this staff, they will not be asked to do things they aren't capable of doing.
There's too much work to be done for any predictions to be made about the 2010 season.
But this can be said and written with certainty. From where they started in spring to where they finished, as much progress was made as anyone could realistically hope for.
That's all Houston or anyone could ask.
Now, more hard work begins as the offseason program cranks up in short order. It will be seven grueling weeks of getting ready for August and the season. The players will be in good hands during that time frame as well with Strength & Conditioning Coach Don Decker and his staff pushing the buttons.
It's a critical time for the continued development of the 2010 Rebels.
Make no mistake, further progress will be a major key to their fortunes this fall. Hopefully, the spring training they had will be the catalyst to bigger and better results.